Ashton Kutcher with a cause (and less money)

Yes Men are anything but: Punking the press one story at a time

Yes Men are anything but: Punking the press one story at a time

This just in, in a remarkable change of heart, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs has just announced that he, along with all his fellow looters in loafers, will give back their bonuses to start a fund for those who have lost their homes due to the hijacking scams of the famed Wall Street barons.

Or how about this:

British Petroleum, deeply concerned about the long-term implications of the recent mega oil spill, has donated profits to clean up the devastation. In addition, BP employees will be taking special bird-washing classes so they can spend their vacations cleaning up the Gulf Coast.

Maybe this is more up my alley:

The American Ballet Society has just released a statement of support for American female ballet choreographers, including special funds to commission major new works. They also acknowledged that has been way too long since a woman (perhaps never?) ran a major American dance company and seek to correct that within the year.

Can you tell I spent some time with The Yes Men?

Andy Bichlbaum specifically, during a  How to be a Yes Men workshop as part of Keep It Slick: Infiltrating Capitalism with The Yes Men, curated by Astria Suparak and organized by Feldman Gallery at Pacific Northwest College of Art and Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University. The show is up now at DiverseWorks and runs through June 5.

The Yes Men, Bichlbaum & Mike Bonanno, are prankster/artists/identity correctors who are most famous for duping the BBC when Jude Finisterra (Bichlbaum) posed as a Dow spokesperson to announce that Dow was now taking responsibility for the Bhopal chemical disaster. The caper resulted in over 600 articles, drawing needed attention to the still growing health problems of those injured by the incident.

Other fabulous capers include posing as a spokesperson from the Chamber of Commerce, announcing that the not-so-green group has come out for stricter environmental protections, and a fake edition of The New York Times, hailing "The Iraq War is over." Their movie, The Yes Men Fixed the World, headlined the Cinema Arts Festival last fall.

"Corporations never do the right thing," Bichlbaum said to the attentive DiverseWorks crowd. The best you can do is shame them into admitting that they have no intention of doing the right thing. That's what happens when they send out the press release saying, no, we are not doing this or that, as in the right thing.

Bichlbaum wanted to bring the conversation to a local level, so he took ideas from the crowd. Turns out, there's a certain upscale grocery chain (they make that fabulous cheesy bread) that is interested in purchasing  a piece of land near another grocery chain in a low-income area of the city. The land would make a great park.

So why not call a press conference, have a person impersonate a spokesperson from that unnamed grocery store announce they are, in fact, turning that lovely stretch of land into a park and community garden.

Not so fast. Bichlbaum advises to do your homework. Who is the target? Is it the city or the store? The goal is to activate voters, to raise public awareness, support and possibly outrage.

"What about legal issues?" asked a Yes Men wannabe. "We will get to that later," sidestepped Bichlbaum.

The Yes Men outlined a step-by-step action plan, most of which is outlined on their website and in their handy workbook. Everything from how to create a fake website, to the timing of press releases, video tips, the total ins and out of punking the press is yours for the taking. You can even have a fake "real" corporate spokesperson come in to stop the whole thing.

"It's even better when the real people show up. That's what happened at the Chamber of Commerce. The real guy came charging in to stop us," Bichlbaum remembered. "We could not have asked for a better prop."

According to Bichlbaum, the press doesn't mind being misled. "They have fun with it, and usually get a good story out of it," he said. "Most get it pretty quickly."

That's where you hit them with the follow-up interview. When they ask why you would do something stupid like impersonating someone, say, "Speaking of stupid", and launch into your talking points. You can even send a come clean press release that points to action plans and activist organizations that are already working on the problem. Keep in mind, those activist organizations may or may not want to be implicated.

"You might want to call them beforehand. Then, send a fake hand-wringing press release from the corporation, where they admit they have no intention of doing such and such. The corporation might send a real one, too. That's the best situation."

Imagine you wanted to throw some attention on a local school board that has eliminated arts funding. So you set up a nice press conference announcing it has restored arts funding, perhaps even added funding. Don't forget to serve beer and food. Once the press gets wind of the fake story, the real fun starts.

The real school board would then have to send a press release stating it has not restored arts funding, often sounding a bit, well, cold and heartless in the process. This situation ends up being your protection from those pesky "legal" issues. It makes them look really creepy by going after you.

Yes Men-ing is not for the faint of troublemaking. It  takes considerable planning, tech savvy and access to one kick-ass press list. Sounds like a ton of work to me. I might just go Yes Men lite and crash a Tea Party with a sign reading, "Thanks FDA for keeping arsenic out of my baby formula, or some other gov-lovin' sentiment. I will make sure to misspell something so I blend in.

Workshop participants less lazy than I left scheming and plotting. Watch out Houston!  All the details on how to Yes Man-ize yourself are here.

As for the question on getting into trouble — absolutely. Plan on it.

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Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno brushing their teeth in "The Yes Men" Courtesy of The Yes Men
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Andy Bichlbaum, a member of "The Yes Men," appears on television with breaking news. Courtesy of The Yes Men
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Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno pose as ExxonMobil executives. Courtesy of The Yes Men