Thursday, July 30, 2009

Pranking the Monkey

What The Yes Men can teach animal activists

When Sacha Baron Cohen hit the big screen in 2006 as the crude but endearing Kazakh TV correspondent Borat Sagdiyev, he held a funhouse mirror up to the ugly underbelly of bigotry, intolerance and ignorance that permeates American culture. The guerrilla mockumentary drew unprecedented popular attention to the disturbing persistence of anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, and other troubling prejudices by becoming a surprise blockbuster hit with box office grosses exceeding $260 million worldwide. In May 2009, the irrepressible Mr. Cohen returned to multiplexes portraying the flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion reporter Brüno to take aim at homophobia — but he’s not the only comedian who’s using cinematic satire as a weapon to fight oppression this summer.

The Yes Men:
Andy Bichlbaum & Mike Bonanno
That’s because The Yes Men (Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno) are back with their second movie: entitled The Yes Men Fix the World, it premiered on HBO this past Monday, July 27th (and earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival). Now, at this point, some of you may be wondering, just who (or what) are The Yes Men? To answer this question, allow me to explain by comparison: while mega-star Cohen disarms his unsuspecting subjects (persons both ordinary and famous) by flawlessly inhabiting characters who exude oblivious faux naïveté regarding shared mores, The Yes Men are radical social justice activists who specialize in “Impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them. Targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else.” In other words, this daring duo speaks truth to power by pretending to speak for the insidious organizations and institutions that wield power in ways so dangerous and destructive that they defy both logic and imagination.

A Yes Men-designed Halliburton SurvivaBall
The Yes Men’s chameleonic performances at corporate conferences and on national news programs not only consistently generate controversy and media publicity, but (more importantly) concrete results — as well as some pretty big laughs for their growing fan base. But even crazier than the pair’s antics themselves is the fact that these intrepid impostors are typically taken very seriously by their hapless victims — no matter how insane or outrageous their proposals actually are.

For instance, when The Yes Men hawk bizarre inventions — like the Halliburton SurvivaBall or a WTO-designed leotard suit for remote factory mangers complete with “Employee Visualization Appendage” (i.e., an outsized inflatable phallus with TV screen for convenient monitoring of employees) — business people don’t chase them off or call the cops: they applaud and request business cards. When the progressive provocateurs suggest combating Third World famine with fast food hamburgers made partly from human feces or ending African poverty by reinstating slavery, free marketeers are intrigued rather than horrified. It’s the kind of eye-popping, jaw-dropping theatrical sleight of hand that makes you stare in disbelief and think “Wow! How the hell did they pull that off?!”

Applications for Animal Activism

Sure, The Yes Men are very effective at revealing a hideously dark side of human nature that most of us would rather not see, but that should not obscure the fact that they also expertly expose the extremes of capitalist greed and excess. That’s why I hope animal advocates will be inspired to learn from their example and supplement our own campaigns by incorporating their unconventional strategies. Here are some possible starting points:

Identity Imitation – Attend a conference, job fair, trade show, or fancy fundraising event posing as a representative or spokesperson for a company or industry (e.g., meat, fur, vivisection, circus, etc.) that kills animals for profit. This may involve setting up a booth or table with phony brochures and posters, wearing a T-shirt with the company’s logo on it and handing out spoof fliers, or just hijacking a live microphone in between speakers and delivering an over-the-top but completely convincing speech expressing animal exploitation values in raw form. To pass yourself off as authentic, remember to dress appropriately (i.e., formally) for the part you’re playing.
The Yes Men's alternative edition of
The New York Times

Media Mockery – The mainstream media often seeks to please its advertisers by offering up uncritical coverage of animal issues that serve as de facto promotions for inherently inhumane industries and companies. The propaganda promulgated by animal enterprises themselves is even more ludicrously manipulative because it is not even mediated by any pretense of journalistic objectivity. Reframe the debate by producing a fake magazine, trade journal or corporate Web site that explains straight-up the true viewpoint of commercialized animal torture (i.e., without the softening touch of public relations image management).

Online Hi-Jinks – The Internet is rich with potential opportunities for tricking animal killers and their apologists into dropping their customary decorum and unwittingly divulging their most shocking beliefs. Set a Twitter trap by finding a “backchannel” for an animal industry conference and start posting as one of the initiated, then make your exchange public. You can also attend industry events as a “true believer” to capture conversations with attendees on video and post them on YouTube.

For more information on these ideas, and to join an international network of activists bent on subverting the dominant paradigm from a variety of strike points, visit The Yes Men’s Fix the World Challenge Web page. If you have acting, graphic arts, computer programming, photography, videography, writing, or other creative skills that you would like to use for a Yes-Menesque animal rights project, please let me know at As a longtime writer/activist who grew up fascinated by MAD magazine and Wacky Packages, I’ve often thought it would be loads of fun to engage in this kind of irreverent enterprise, and would love to collaborate with others on making something cool!

10 Handy “Culture Jamming” Resources:
1. The Yes Men’s “special edition” of the New York Times
2. Adbusters
3. No Logo
4. Culture Jam
5. The Onion
6. Billboard Liberation Front
7. Ron English
8. Negativland
9. Abby Hoffman Brigade
10. Freeway Blogger


  1. Another great, thought-provoking post. Thank you!

  2. very interesting. although, would this be differentiated from other more "direct action" forms of activism by...the powers that be?

    i'm curious about the technicalities on that....

  3. In response to swircle987's legality question, the answer is unclear, at least according to The Yes Men's FAQ page (

    Q: Why haven't you been fed to the bears, or at least arrested? Isn't what you do illegal?

    A: Perhaps it is! And we don't know! Bears would be too good for us, but our targets don't want the risk. At least that's our theory. Anytime anyone has done something about us—saying they "deplore" us, complaining that we're a Political Action Committee, whatever—they've looked ridiculous to the press.
    On the other hand, what we do might not be illegal. Lawyers don't seem to know; the ones we've asked can't point to such-and-such a law that means we're in trouble. But then the law is pretty irrelevant, as far as corporations are concerned—if they want you silenced, they just throw a totally bogus lawsuit at you, that invariably gets thrown out, and in the meantime ties you up in red tape. That's called a SLAPP suit, and it's the main way corporations silence community activists whose causes aren't sexy enough for the mainstream media to follow.