PRINT February 2005


Tom Vanderbilt on the Yes Men

JEAN-FRANÇOIS LYOTARD famously described postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives.” But lately I have thought a more apt characterization would be “incredulity toward MetaFilter,” using the popular blog ( as a metaphor for all Internet information, which arrives in such volume and with so many hallmarks of legitimacy as to strain the usual measures of veracity. For example, I was recently alerted by MetaFilter to the existence of a gated community near São Paulo called AlphaVille. This seemed an elaborate joke—a cluster of guarded villas named for Jean-Luc Godard’s techno-pulp metropolis, where free expression, art, and even love had been outlawed? AlphaVille’s website depicted a self-contained heterotopia-in-the-sun straight from J.G. Ballard’s novel Super-Cannes (2001), but I was still skeptical. Websites can be faked (think of those e-mails with credible subject lines like “re: your last message,” or entreaties from eBay dressed in rigorously counterfeited graphic identities). It took several more minutes of research before I could finally ascertain that, yes, AlphaVille was for real and, indeed, was an increasingly popular settlement amid the urban violence of Brazil.

It was no doubt a similar dilemma that confronted a BBC producer last year when he visited the website, hoping to solicit a comment from the Dow Chemical Company (the corporation that bought Union Carbide) on the twentieth anniversary of the disastrous gas leak in Bhopal, India. The website looks genuine, replete with Dow logo and slogans. A more careful look, however, reveals unexpectedly counterintuitive public-relations gestures such as: “Dow is responsible for the birth of the modern environmental movement. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, about the side-effects of a Dow product, DDT, led to a groundswell of concern and the birth of many of today’s environmental action groups.”

As any journalist under deadline knows, finding a last-minute quote is like a mad scramble for the fire exits—any one will do. Navigating corporate websites is particularly daunting, as one sifts through endless menus looking for that official oracle that will lead to an appointed spokesperson. So it was undoubtedly with a measure of relief that this BBC producer came across contact information for the company’s representative “Jude Finisterra.” Soon this individual—whose Martin Amis–esque name melded the patron saint of impossible causes with the end of the earth—was speaking from a Paris television studio, providing a BBC anchor with what seemed to be the journalistic scoop of the decade: “For the first time, Dow is accepting full responsibility for the Bhopal catastrophe.” Dow, it appeared, was ready to pony up $12 billion for environmental remediation and pain and suffering, above and beyond the original settlement of $470 million, which many had thought shockingly low. Within twenty-three minutes of this announcement, Dow’s share prices had tumbled more than four percent, a loss of more than $2 billion.

Before long, Finisterra was discovered to be not an official Dow spokesman but Andy Bichlbaum, cofounder of the Yes Men, a loose affiliation of media pranksters created in 1999 that specializes in what it calls “identity correction”—a play on the idea of “identity theft”—in which members appropriate the identities of corporations or government bodies in order to speak truths that, ostensibly, those entities dare not. The Yes Men first garnered attention when, having mirrored the World Trade Organization’s website with their own,, the collective fielded a number of invitations to appear at international trade conferences. Armed with thrift-store suits and PowerPoint presentations, Bichlbaum and fellow cofounder Michael Bonanno posed as representatives of the WTO under names like Hank Hardy Unruh or Granwyth Hulatberi, making outlandish calls (to generally nonplussed audiences) for abolishing the southern European siesta in the name of productivity and cultural uniformity, or advancing arguments that the US Civil War was unnecessary because the corrective forces of the market would have achieved the same results. (The North’s intervention only “deprived slavery of its natural development into remote labor.”) The height of capriciousness came in 2002 in a lecture at SUNY-Plattsburgh, in which a Mr. Kinnithrung Sprat, né Andy Bichlbaum, joined by a fictitious representative from McDonald’s, postulated a “reBurger”—a hamburger patty formed from filtered human waste generated from previously eaten burgers—that could be sold at reduced cost to the Third World. “Who is to say whether people in the Third World even want a burger?” retorted one exasperated student.

The Yes Men, whose efforts are chronicled in a recent documentary of the same name, is only the most recent effort of Bichlbaum and Bonanno, who have previously, under various guises, performed a variety of rather notorious media pranks. I first met Bonanno years ago, when he was living under a different name, appropriately enough, in Piru, California, a small town kept alive by its commercial use as a historically hyperreal Hollywood film set (complete with authentic-looking signage and the like). By that time, he was already renowned for his exploits with the Barbie Liberation Organization, which switched voice boxes on G.I. Joe and Barbie toys, causing a rash of gender panic in Toys“R”Us stores throughout the nation. Bichlbaum, meanwhile, had hacked a videogame he was working on, SimCopter, to include swimsuit-clad male characters who kissed each other.

As interesting as these efforts were, they were ultimately absurdist enterprises that confounded the expectations around a single product: Barbie speaking like G.I. Joe. The move into producing simulacra confounded in another way: The clones of websites were not what one expected, but due less to their absurdity than because they said things that were “too real”—too real for a world of public-relations palliatives and careful management of messages and impressions. The Internet also allowed for a whole new order of deception, a massive expansion in the political economy of pranking. You couldn’t impersonate a company like Dow, with its thousands of employees and glassy corporate towers; but with a little gumption and some HTML expertise, you could create a believable website. Type in the wrong domain name—using “org” instead of “com,” or instead of—and you enter a parallel universe.

The hoax as a cultural product has an ancient lineage—from medieval manuscript forgeries to pretenders to the throne—but as the world has become more connected, the hoaxes spread farther and faster than ever before. We have all become not only the potential audience for hoaxes but also the potential generators of hoaxes, the carriers of rogue memes. It is a bit of a paradox: In a mass society, the individual has grown in importance. In the John Cheever story “The Enormous Radio,” a couple in Manhattan find they are able, through the eponymous device, to hear the conversations in other apartments. The World Wide Web is like an Enormous Radio, and each day we can hear everything that we choose to in all the other rooms of the world. Our belief can be transmitted, mirrored, and eventually through sheer mass and repetition begin to assume the contours of credibility. Not only was the initial faux Dow “apology” the top story on Google’s news server, but so was the real Dow’s official denial—and so, too, was the Yes Men’s faux Dow “retraction”: “Dow’s sole and unique responsibility is to its shareholders, and Dow CANNOT do anything that goes against its bottom line unless forced to by law.” The media cycle echoes the Yes Men’s phony reBurger menu, where the designations One, Two, Three, etc., refer to the number of times each item has been successively digested, eliminated, and reconstituted; there is now an overwhelming appetite for news, thousands of narrowcasters in search of the same memes. To paraphrase a coffee mug, same shit, different blog.

Most successful hoaxes work by the fidelity with which they cleave to the original source. The early 1967 document Report from Iron Mountain on the Possibility and Desirability of Peace, the alleged product of an ultrasecret think tank, worked so well that it was not fully debunked until its own authors exposed it (an act that some maintained was itself part of the subterfuge). Iron Mountain worked because it was only as satirically outrageous as were those reports from which it drew inspiration, madcap theses from Herman Kahn et al. that postulated “winnable nuclear war” and the transfer of social institutions underground. When “Andreas Bichlbauer” of the Yes Men went to a trade conference in Salzburg, Austria, and called for such absurdities as the abolition of all regional differences, he was speaking in a venue where corruptions of thought and language were not necessarily out of place, as in this Rumsfeldian nugget from a corporate mediator: “If you create what I call an indifference curve about language—if you can find more than one way to acceptably say the same thing—then if you cannot reach agreement on one set of words, one phrase, you can reach agreement on another, and effectively say the same thing and it will mean what the parties needed to mean.”

The point is: Concepts like “truth” and “reality” no longer matter much in any objective sense. Truth and reality can, to paraphrase the prior quote, mean what the parties need them to mean. The Yes Men are the perfect realist artists of our time; they interpret the world as they see it, but they do it through the accepted aesthetic conventions of the day: websites, PowerPoints, authoritative-sounding language, etc. When “Hulatberi” debated an antiglobalization activist on CNBC, the preposterous nature of his rhetoric was rather lost among all the signifiers of factual information that surrounded him: the scrolling stock indexs, the CNBC logo, his suit and tie and placement in a Paris TV studio. But a hoax, no matter how artfully presented, would fail without an audience that wanted to believe. Bichlbaum recalls that his own nervousness in appearing as a bogus WTO official was ameliorated by the audience’s faith in his authority; as he puts it, “they suspend your disbelief.” This echoes the early-twentieth-century hijinks of Paul Jordan Smith and his Disumbrationist School of Art, an outlandish parody of Cubism and other au courant movements. Expecting howls of derision, Smith found his works enthusiastically received. Presented with a tinge of the accepted conventions—a gallery, the social pressure to keep up with the latest trends—the audience absolved the work of its illegitimacy. As George Orwell said, there are some ideas so preposterous that only intellectuals (and perhaps the art world) will believe them. Label something art, it becomes art; label something truth, it becomes truth.

But did no one among those audiences who sat politely through the Yes Men’s WTO presentations, even taking notes, get the joke? In an e-mail, the Yes Men offered an explanation: “We are certain that some people found it absurd—they must have. But the fact that the social conventions kept them from speaking out against it is frightening. We learn here that we can all implicitly support extremely violent and patently absurd ideas, and in an auditorium of experts we may find no one who will publicly dissent. All this has been proven time and time again: in history, as violent regimes are supported by public majorities; and in the laboratory, by experiments like Milgram’s” (a reference to Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram’s experiment in which subjects were persuaded by a scientific authority to administer what they thought were painful electric shocks to actors playing test subjects).

It is still an open question, though, as to why, how, and for whom the Yes Men’s stunts can be regarded as successful: Do they expose that organizations like the WTO really are as venal as the artists would have them, or do they simply reveal a naïveté on the part of the antiglobalization movement—i.e., that in thinking that people really fall for this stuff they are essentially doing the same thing (in other words, they’re so far in on the joke, the joke’s on them)? Were the SUNY students who challenged the Yes Men’s comments brave for speaking out or stupid for rising to the bait? Perhaps both. It is ironic that the Beeb fell for it, though: This is the network that in 1957 ran a satirical account of the “spaghetti harvest” in southern Switzerland, after which thousands called to inquire about getting their own “spaghetti tree.” But the sadder irony is that the BBC was one of the few news outlets even interested in covering the twentieth anniversary of Bhopal. In this sense, the Yes Men won. They could have sent earnest press releases about Bhopal to respected news organizations, but would Fox and CBS have listened? Instead, they redefined the terms of engagement and issued a preemptive strike against the managed flow of news. They made Dow respond to a question it did not want asked, and the whole world was watching for its answer.

New York–based writer Tom Vanderbilt is the author, most recently, of Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002).