The Common Good

The Yes Men: Corporate Pranksters on a Mission

090928-yes-men-fix-the-worldFans of gonzo political activism may remember the Yes Men's infamous stunt in which Andy Bichlbaum posed as a Dow Chemical spokesperson named Jude (patron saint of the impossible) Finisterra (earth's end). In front of a worldwide television audience estimated to be around 300 million people, he made the announcement that after twenty years of denial, "Dow will accept full responsibility for the Bhopal disaster, and has a $12 billion dollar plan to compensate the victims and remediate the site." After Dow's stock values drops about two billion dollars, Andy and his partner Mike Bonann realize that while people want for corporations to do the right thing, the market will not allow them to do so.

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Lest anyone feel the Yes Men are simply playing a more sophisticated version of Jackass or Punk'd, their mischievous moves actually serve a higher purpose than your typical juvenile pranks. For example, this particular bit of political street theater proved to be far more effective at raising global awareness of the plight of those living in Bhopal than years of demonstrations, letter writing campaigns, and other campaigns targeted against Union Carbide.

In the documentary The Yes Men Fix the World, Andy and Mike give us a behind the scenes look at their operation. After setting up fake corporate websites representing internationally known corporations and governmental organizations, they sit back and wait for people to invite them to speak at conferences, make media appearances, and perform other functions under the mistaken assumption that these men are in fact real spokespersons.

Some have compared the Yes Men to Michael Moore, though I find they have more in common with Sasha Baron Cohen's playful impersonations than Michael Moore's obstinate outsider persona. While Moore's attempt to make a citizen's arrest of AIG may provide for some funny footage, watching corporate honchos actually begin to buy into the Yes Men's inhuman and insane ideas elevates their satire to a Swiftian status.

The items highlighted in the documentary the Yes Men presented at various corporate events include the following:

A Golden Skeleton: During their appearance at a 2005 London banking conference, they were greeted with enthusiastic applause when they gave a lecture outlining Dow's industry standards for determining how many deaths are acceptable when achieving large profits. To accompany this presentation, they brought along their Acceptable Risk Mascot "Gilda: The Golden Skeleton in the Closet" and passed out key chains containing the Dow logo and a skeleton head.

SurvivaBall: This product was launched at the Catastrophic Loss Conference by the Yes Men pretending to be representatives from Halliburton. According to their press materials, these inflatable orbs are "nothing less than a self-containing living system -- truly a community for one. If you have a SurvivaBall, even if everyone else is dying, at least you can weather all storms."

Exxon's Climate-Victim Candles: Posing as Exxon and National Petroleum Council (NPC) executives, Andy and Mike deliver a keynote speech during GO-EXPO, Canada's largest oil conference. About 300 oilmen listened to their plans to create a new form of biofuel that consists of candles made from the remains of climate change victims. But they were escorted out of the room when they played a video tribute of comics posing as a terminally ill Exxon janitor who announced his wish to be transformed into candles after his death. Seems watching a man wax about how the oil company he worked for might be killing him, but he's grateful to keep on giving, was a bit too close for comfort.

Towards the end of the documentary, Andy and Mike set out to see if their theory is correct that most Americans want to see positive change in the way corporations control the world. They prove their point by printing out fake copies of The New York Times and distributing them to passers-by in Manhattan. With the exception of The New York Times security, who tried to halt the distribution of this fake edition, those reading the paper knew that news such as "Court Indicts Bush on High Treason Counts," "Iraq War Ends," and "Nation Sets its Sights on Building a Sane Economy" weren't true, but they wished it could be. As the documentary comes to a close, Mike asks the pertinent question, "If a few people at the top can make the bad news happen, then why can't all of us at the bottom get together and make the good news happen for a change?"

Yes Men Fix the World opens October 7 in New York City with simultaneous premieres in New Orleans and Bhopal with a nationwide release starting on October 20. To check on when a screening will be coming near you, log on to their Web-site.

portrait-becky-garrisonBecky Garrison is featured in the documentaries The Ordinary Radicals and Nailin' it to the Church.

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