'Yes Men' The Gag Guerillas Take on the World

Apparently, it's not that difficult to unsettle giant multi-nationals and vast institutions. A couple of PR stunts and some well-planned impersonations is all it takes. The "Yes Men" presented their latest guerilla gags at the Berlin International Film Festival.


It is a December morning in Paris, just before 8 a.m. A wobbly, hand-held camera follows an agitated man as he walks into a BBC television studio. The man is wearing a suit and tie -- and clenching a paper that he himself appears to not entirely believe.

Two men in costumes advertise the film "The Yes Men Fix the World," playing at the Berlin International Film Festival.
DPA

Two men in costumes advertise the film "The Yes Men Fix the World," playing at the Berlin International Film Festival.

In a short time, he will tell millions of television viewers that he admits responsibility for the catastrophic chemical gas leak in Bhopal, India, in 1984 and that $12 billion (€9.3 billion) in damages is now available to the victims. It is the 20th anniversary of the accident, which killed thousands and left tens of thousands of additional victims suffering until the present day.

The BBC audience is supposed to believe that the man speaks for Dow Chemical, one of the largest chemical companies in the world and the owner of Union Carbide, which operated the factory where the accident occurred. In reality, though, the man is not, as he claims, a Dow Chemical spokesman named Jude Finisterra. Rather, it is Andy Bichlbaum, a man who has become a master at the art of guerrilla communications and mass media chicanery.

The BBC appearance, of course, was back in 2004, but since then, Bichlbaum and his partner Mike Bonanno, both of them artists from New York, have become stars in the activist scene. Bonanno got an early start by swapping out the electronic innards of Barbie dolls and toy soldiers -- children were surprised at Christmas when their new toy soldiers chirped "I want to go shopping with you!" It was the modest beginnings of a PR guerilla whose pranks have long since caught the attention of the entire world.

Destroying PR Campaigns

The pair calls themselves the "Yes Men," and they have emerged as a threat to entire companies and institutions. With their cheap yet effective media campaigns, the pair can often undo in seconds an image that PR professionals have spent years -- and millions -- building up.

"Identity Correction" is how the duo refers to their strategy. And the goal is clear: to throw a wrench in the gears of business-as-usual. The best gags can now be seen in the film called "The Yes Men Fix the World," playing at the Berlin International Film Festival this week. Like the first film, simply called "The Yes Men," it is a kind of homage to the anti-marketing guerrillas.

Bichlbaum and Bonanno have accompanied their film to Berlin for the festival. And it even includes their most recent prank. On the morning of Nov. 12, thousands of Americans rubbed their eyes in surprise when they saw the cover of the New York Times proclaiming the end of the Iraq War and the withdrawal of American troops. Only at second glance did the prank become apparent. The paper, distributed for free, carried the date July 4, 2009 and the slogan "All the news we hope to print."

As perfect as the finished product looked -- there was even an ad from the oil giant Shell which read "even peace can be lucrative" -- the creation of the fake was chaotic. "A mixture of meticulousness and chaos," says Bichlbaum.

He says that the planned publication date was delayed multiple times, partially because the $9,000 in donations necessary for the project trickled in slowly. Plus, two of the print shops originally set to be involved lost their courage in the last moment and backed out.

But the Yes Men are used to such glitches. When Bichlbaum and Bonanno launched a fake version of the World Trade Organization's Web site in 1999, it took months before anyone noticed. But the first inquiry was a bull's eye. A conference in Salzburg asked if WTO Director-General Mike Moore could attend. Instead, a certain Dr. Andreas Bichlbauer was sent. With no protests from his audience, he made a case for selling votes and praised the economic policies of Adolf Hitler.

Grotesque

In hindsight, it seems ironic that Bichlbaum was kicked out of his university theater group for being short on talent and having a wooden delivery. In his current role, he compensates with grotesque PowerPoint presentations and special appearances, such as the time he impersonated a WTO representative before a group of textile producers in the Finnish town of Tampere.

There, his speech culminated in a call for the constant monitoring of workers. To illustrate what he had in mind, his assistant ripped his suit off so as to reveal his shiny golden leotard and a huge inflatable phallus with an integrated monitoring display panel.

Such a show, of course, would lead most to begin suspecting that Bichlbaum might, in fact, be an imposter. And every so often he gets carted off by the police. Bonanno himself admits to being surprised at just how rarely that happens.

In Finland, for example, the two were applauded, and the moderator thanked them for their presentation. Instead of shaking their heads in disbelief, says Bichlbaum, "the people often ask us for our business cards." And whenever their cover is blown, word of their exploits speeds through the Internet so quickly that companies don't dare file a lawsuit for fear of looking like a spoil sport.

In the case of the Dow Chemical prank, the charade was blown in less than two hours. The BBC invited Bichlbaum back into the studio, where he explained that the deceit was started by Dow and not him. The company, he said, was suggesting that it had done enough for the accident's victims.

The free market reacted as it always does. After the reports of the alleged compensation payments, the total value of Dow stock dropped by $2 billion (€1.55 billion). But once Dow released its denial, stocks shot right back up.

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