What do you get when you combine The Onion, Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update, and well, AMC’s hit Mad Men? You get The Yes Men, a brilliant and often hilarious form of activism from Yes Labs that incorporates some of big corporations’ most effective tactics: slick PR campaigns, well-groomed spokesmen, and mass publications.
Here’s how Yes Labs works: for a typical activist project, a group wishing to spar with a corporation or large global organization will come to Yes Labs with a target. That bull’s eye could be a large agribusiness firm, an institution that’s “too big to fail,” a poor government policy, or perhaps, a large energy company that preaches unfettered capitalism but socialized environmental cleanup.
Yes Labs then works with the group to develop a strategic plan for accomplishing its goals, trains as many people as necessary, and then monitors the project until completion. The end game? A public relations stunt so slick it appears heartfelt and as the real deal—in some cases, an activist will infiltrate the company or convince the media to run a story that will gain the company some great buzz—with often mischievous results.
One of Yes Labs’ best examples of corporate mayhem was back in 2004, the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal tragedy at which Union Carbide (since absorbed by Dow Chemical) was responsible for the leakage of poisonous gases that killed thousands in Central India. Coached by Yes Labs staffers, a man posing as Jude Finisterra scored an interview on BBC news, thanks to a fake website and fake press releases that purported to explain Dow’s take on how the case should be legally settled. A BBC producer took the bait and arranged an interview, and on December 3, 2004, Finisterra (actually Andy Bichlbaum), announced on television that Dow would liquidate Union Carbide for a tidy US$12 billion, clean up the Bhopal site, and compensate families who were affected by the horrid events.
The aftermath? Dow’s stock price fell over 4% within minutes, losing US$2 billion in market value. True, the “truth” eventually got out, Dow was forced to spin its heels and report that such a compensation fund was not in the works, and the BBC had to retract the story—but Dow learned a painful lesson of what corporate social responsibility means. And twenty years after many of us forgot about the Bhopal disaster, the story became front page news once again.
Yes Labs has notched other impressive stunts in its belt: Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing New York Post witnessed fake copies of its screeching tabloid appear throughout Manhattan announcing that on environmental matters, “We’re Screwed.” Canadian diplomats surprised their own negotiators in Copenhagen last December in proclaiming that their country was a huge emitter of greenhouse gases. And at the iconic National Press Club in Washington, DC, the US Chamber of Commerce briefly revealed that it had gone “green” and supported the Kerry-Boxer climate change bill.
Yes Labs is on to something. We live in a culture that is often turned off by protesters, chanting, and marches (depending on which side you are on of course). Sometimes a mischievous, even malicious dose of sly wit and scheming is the best medicine. And as much as I love those lampooning stories on The Onion, they are much more delicious when they appear on CNN, FoxNews, or the New York Post. Stay tuned: this bunch has more up their sleeves, and they could use your help. They make that fake Sarkozy call to Sarah Palin look like an amateur prank call.