Can activists prank us to a better society?

Curator's Note

Watching Yes Men member Andy Bichlbaum perform this interview, I am first struck by the sheer bravado of the prank. Here he is, on international television, posing as a spokesman for Dow taking “full responsibility” for the Bhopal disaster. His nervousness is palpable and what he says is certainly shocking from a number of perspectives. But ultimately I wonder about the degree to which such a tactic advances social critique. The subsequent coverage of this prank made transparent how the news media can work to contain criticism: In one example (view it here), while Bichlbaum tries to keep the spotlight on Dow, the interviewer works to focus on the unwittingly fooled people in Bhopal. Elsewhere, much of the coverage addressed journalistic practices – a relevant critique the prank certainly suggests, although it was not intended. What becomes clear is that revealing the prank is a crucial aspect of the prank because without it, how could audiences be sure if it was a prank or not? In this case, not knowing Finisterra was an imposter, or not hearing Dow’s retraction, could leave audiences with the impression of a company doing what’s right which is quite the opposite of the intended message. So I find myself wondering if the kind of coverage seen in the revealing of this prank works with or against the criticism being offered by the activists involved. This seems a rather risky approach for activists trying to raise awareness of issues as it ultimately relies on a media system outside of their control and more politically, economically and/or ideologically aligned with a vast array of potential targets. Is it best for activists to stick to media where they are in complete control of the message, even if it means a smaller audience? Beyond motivating and encouraging activists or others who may already hold the critical perspective a prank promotes (an important task in its own right), is the fulfillment of any broader objective likely?


To some extent, I have to agree with you, Afsheen, that the point may not only be lost on many not already in the know, but might actually backfire. I used bits from the Yes Men in a class and the majority of students had no idea that what they were watching was a hoax. Moreover, when informed, many students felt angry that they were being tricked and that the company was being misrepresented. I wonder though if the ability to circulate these clips on Youtube, or social networking sites like Myspace allow activists an opportunity to re-purpose their pranks and regain some control over how their efforts are framed? Of course, this also raises the question of why bother with getting on the news at all, when one could just create a parody video that accomplishes the same task? Is there something essential to the possibility of being found out that drives these pranks?

I certainly see the danger of the meaning backfiring, but if satire, parody, and pranking worried too much about this, we'd have no satire, parody, or pranking. It's impossible to be in "complete control" of any message, let alone a comic one. Besides, I'm not sure the coverage would matter as much as the prank to some viewers. So, backfiring and boomeranging or not, I'd still place some faith in the strength of such things to work on a limited audience - and that's likely the point. Preaching to the converted is often how satire, parody, and pranking work the best, not in grand acts of conversion.

Hi, I wanted to add a comment earlier, but had a problem logging in. I entirely agree with Jonathan. People use the phrase "preaching to the converted" all the time as a dismissive, but I do think that it can have political efficacy. The converted can still be apathetic, and can still need reminding of their beliefs, and, more importantly, need to feel that they are part of a larger group that shares those beliefs if they are to be moved to political action. I have actually done some work on ironic activist groups (like the Yes Men, the Billionaires for Bush, Reverend Billy, etc) in which I am arguing that irony is used to remind people (who get the joke) that they share similar viewpoints and to ideally turn those like-minded individuals into more of an active counterpublic. Also, on another note, this particular prank did, actually reach a larger audience, as the reveal of the prank became a fairly major news story, meaning that the Bhopal event got some news coverage. As the Yes Men have pointed out in interviews, most Americans in particular have never heard of the explosion or the ongoing controversy, and there would likely not have been a mention of the anniversary in the U.S. were it not for this prank.

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