If you want to embarrass world leaders and expose corporate hypocrisy, all you need is a sense of humour, and a lot of balls. Just ask the Yes Men's Andy Bichlbaum.
Bichlbaum was at OCADU Wednesday night to give Toronto activists some tips on how to stage their own political performance art, and he certainly knows what he's talking about. This guy is the Babe Ruth of political pranks. Among other things, the Yes Men were the ones behind the infamous 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference hoax.
That stunt saw activists put out a fake press release on behalf of the Canadian government, claiming Ottawa had pledged to slash emissions and give billions of dollars to African nations to fight climate change. That forced the Harper government to issue its own release asserting the embarrassing fact that they intended not to take aggressive action against global warming.
"We think of headlines we'd like to see, and try to make those headlines happen," Bichelbuam said last night. "If it can be summed up in a headline, it's probably a good idea."
Bichlbaum said the ultimate goal of any good political prank is to get your target to react, as U.S. Chamber of Commerce officials famously did when Bichlbaum called a press conference on their behalf announcing the Chamber had dropped its opposition to climate change legislation. A bona fide representative from the Chamber of Commerce showed up, resulting in a hilarious standoff in which both men attempted to indignantly assert their credentials.
"We got an extra two days of press out of that guy," Bichlbaum laughed. "If we had been in cahoots with him, we couldn't have gotten a better result."
While the Yes Men are absurd and funny, their work has also gotten real results. Soon after their Chamber of Commerce stunt, the Chamber retracted its opposition to climate change legislation. When the Yes Men made a fake ad campaign mirroring Chevron's disingenuous outrage at the BP oil spill, Chevron's stock plummeted.
Perhaps their crowning achievement was when Bichlbaum and his crew took on General Electric, which in the middle of the recession received a $3.2-billion tax credit from the U.S. government. In April the Yes Men faked a release about GE donating the money back to the U.S. treasury. An Associated Press reporter tweeted it and it got picked up by other sources, forcing GE into a flurry of denials. The company's stock temporarily fell more than $3.7 billion.
The Yes Men have clearly benefited from our 24-hour news cycle, in which stories move at an alarming speed and fact checking is a rapidly dying art. Still, Bichlbaum says his work isn't about spreading lies, it's about holding up a mirror to the ways corporations and governments manipulate us.
"We're not about spreading misinformation," he said. "But there is a multi-billion dollar industry that is, and it's called public relations. If we can do this [with so little money], imagine what they're doing to the public."
If there is a way to spot a Yes Men hoax, it's probably that the headline is too good to be true. Harper fighting climate change? GE showing corporate responsibility? Wait a second, that's not the world we live in. You laugh, and then you get angry. That's the brilliance of these guys.
Many in the audience were contemplating taking some action of their own (someone raised the prospect of "Harper Awareness Month"), but some were clearly skittish at the potentially negative legal ramifications. But Bichlbaum assured them there's no such thing as a bad lawsuit, and most companies recognize legal action will only compound their PR problem. For all the shit they've pulled, the Yes Men have only been sued once, and that was for impersonating the Chamber of Commerce. Bichlbaum's confident the suit will be thrown out.
"Usually, they're not going to stir the pot. When people are already laughing at them, if they come after you it makes them look worse. They can't win at that point," he said.