I don't get many emails from the Dow Chemical Corporation, but I did last Friday. At least, that's what it seemed like at first.
The press release from "firstname.lastname@example.org" was headlined, "'DOW' STATEMENT A HOAX: 'HISTORIC AID PACKAGE FOR BHOPAL VICITIMS' A LIE." The message that followed took the form of a typical corporate announcement, but it sounded a little...well, strange. "Today on BBC World Television, a fake Dow spokesperson announced fake plans to take full responsibility for the very real Bhopal tragedy of December 3, 1984. Dow Chemical emphatically denies this announcement. Although seemingly humanistic in nature, the fake plans were invented by irresponsible hucksters with no regard for the truth."
The Yes Men had struck again.
Here's what happened. On the twentieth anniversary of the disaster in Bhopal, India, where over 3,500 people died from a toxic gas leak at a Union Carbide plant, a BBC reporter was contacted by a supposed representative of Dow Chemical, the current corporate parent of Union Carbide, and told to expect a "historic announcement" from Paris. And the announcement was historic indeed: after two decades, the company was finally assuming responsibility for the accident, and promised to establish a fund of $12 billion to compensate the victims.
It took a few hours, and the worldwide dissemination of the story, before the BBC realized it had been hoaxed. An angry Dow representative called the BBC, denying the story outright, and disavowing the spokesman who had appeared hours before. As the London Times observed, "There was something odd about the name of this new spokesman: Jude Finisterra — named after the patron saint of lost causes and a Mexican landmark that translates as 'the end of the Earth.'" Dow quickly issued a terse retraction.
That wasn't good enough for the hoax's perpretrators, who issued a second, more elaborate, retraction, available on an convincing-looking corporate website, complete with an elegantly displayed tagline: "This is Dow Corporate Responsibility." It was this release that I discovered in my email box that Friday afternoon.
The website's tagline, like the entire "retraction," had the remarkable quality of being both scrupulously accurate and absolutely damning. And that's exactly how The Yes Men work.
Finisterra, the fake Dow spokesperson, was articulate and well-prepared. "He was incredibly plausible," an helpless BBC executive told the New York Times . So was "Andreas Bichlbauer," who gave a Powerpoint presentation to an "intrigued" audience at a World Trade Organization conference in Salzburg; there he recommended that democracy (and capitalism) would be best served if votes were auctioned off to the highest bidder. So was the textile industry expert who suggested at a conference in Finland (again, to a polite and even receptive audience) that the U.S. Civil War might have been averted had the South the foresight to replace slavery with "infinitely more efficient" offshore sweatshop labor. Not to mention the McDonald's spokeman who tried to convince an audience of hostile college students that the solution to Third World famine is to provide the means for starving people to recycle their feces.
These are just some of the guises of The Yes Men, two guys named Andy and Mike who describe themselves on their website as "a couple of semi-employed, middle-class (at best) activists with only thrift-store clothes and no formal economics training." They're dedicated to what they call "identity correction." As opposed to identity theft, where "small-time criminals impersonate honest people in order to steal their money," The Yes Men's brand of identity correction is when "honest people impersonate big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them." Their pursuit of their targets -- "leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else" -- has been documented in a well-reviewed new film, named, yes, The Yes Men. These are guys that know how to stay on brand.
But is it design? you might ask. I remember being struck by Ralph Caplan's famous observation that the segregated lunch counter sit-in was "the most elegant design solution of the fifties." As he put it, "Achieved with a stunning economy of means, and a complete understanding of the function intended and the resources available, it is a form beautifully suited to its purpose." And he's right: civil disobedience at its best is a beautiful kind of problem solving. The Yes Men take the action to the global stage for the benefit of a new digital audience, and deploy whatever tool it takes -- websites, logos, Powerpoint presentations -- to perform their elegant jujitsu on their stunned corporate victims: how devastating that the most effective part of the hoax wasn't the hoax itself but the forced retraction. Sure, it's a con game. But to quote one of the oldest design maxims in the book, you can't con an honest man.
Of course, what they do isn't fair, and some people are going to protest. One of them was George W. Bush, who was flummoxed by Andy and Mike's design of his wildly popular illegitimate website, www.gwbush.com. "There ought to be limits to freedom," he complained.
Maybe so. But until there are, we'll all have to deal with The Yes Men.