The Yes Men are arguably the most important media activist group to have emerged in the past decade – anywhere. I say arguably because many will disagree with this claim, but the point I wish to make here from the outset is that The Yes Men’s diverse body of work merits the kind of attention that is ill-afforded activists and marginalized voices today. Whereas I would not wish The Yes Men become mere fodder for celebrity gossip and 24/7 soundbite culture, my intention for writing this book is to provide another opportunity for their work to be discovered, discussed, and debated. In the best case scenario, I imagine that when The Yes Men come up in random conversations over coffee, cocktails, or take-away, people will no longer look at me with a searching glance, as though the lines on my forehead might produce a satisfactory anecdote. This would certainly trump the head-scratching, belaboured “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of them before”-type responses I frequently get.
For too long, The Yes Men’s work has been relegated to virtual obscurity within the warm embrace of artists, academics, and would-be filmmakers – all longtime champions of “identity correction” and corporate hijacking. Indeed, much has been written on The Yes Men in these camps, but very little substantive discussion has emerged in book-lenth form. To date, the only book-length work devoted to The Yes Men was written by, well, The Yes Men. A brilliant, clever, funny, and self-reflexive account of their first actions as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the book provides a wonderful glimpse into Mike and Andy’s motivations for entering the realm of media hoaxing and explains their persistence in carrying out this controversial work.
I should add that my purpose here isn’t to discredit the important research and scholarship of artists and scholars, nor is it to one-up the people I’m writing about; rather, my hope is to build on this research in the interests of writing an accessible and up-to-date account of their work that will appeal to a broad, yet general, readership. That The Yes Men remain the key figures in the dissemination of their own work reveals an disheartening lack in the popular literature devoted to media hoaxing more generally, and suggests that an easily excitable academic should tackle an in-depth exploration of media hoaxing on their behalf.
My first encounter with The Yes Men came in November 2005 (relatively late in the scheme of things), when the University of Guelph’s Docurama series screened their first documentary. Following the screening, I was baffled by how a group of (seemingly) ordinary men could orchestrate, perform, and ultimately pull off such amazing feats in the presence of some of the world’s foremost thinkers and experts. The fact that they used humour as the primary vehicle for communicating their ideas made their work even more poignant. Here was a group of pranksters using some of best comedic material I’d ever seen — in the express interests of highlighting social injustices and corporate corruption. They demonstrated with relative poise just how easy it was to marry parody/irony/humour with social justice and political issues. All this to say I was not only inspired by their sophisticated work, I was moved by the possibilities their work uncovered.
“What if other groups followed suit?”, I wondered. In 2005, the likelihood that anyone would follow in their footsteps seemed unlikely. Aside from what I deemed the serious technical barriers to participating in these kinds of actions (creating websites, multimedia content, online organizing), I felt that the work required too much money, effort, expertise, and courage to attract a whole subset of imitators. Not to mention a comic precision that only some of the best comedians and satirists can fully realize. Finally, creating a bridge between comedy and activism seemed a difficult undertaking, a divide that continues to this day. In drawing these connections, I felt even more grateful to have encountered The Yes Men’s WTO identity corrections because I was unsure of just how many more actions of this kind would materialize. (As this book makes clear, there would be many other noteworthy pranks to follow.)
Over the next few years I made a concerted effort to introduce my students to The Yes Men, if only to expose them to the realm of media activism, but perhaps more so to gauge their responses to these elaborate pranks. Undergraduate students were unsurprisingly enthusiastic, perhaps due in part to youth culture’s longstanding penchant for rebellion, its questioning of authority, and its playful use of the (symbolic) middle finger. After all, The Yes Men (first and foremost) want to make you laugh. They’re akin to the comedian that is primarily in the business of making you laugh – whether they’re using situational/topical humour, blonde jokes, or off-colour remarks, their primary goal is to make you laugh. If the subject matter is political in tone or in nature, so be it, but if the material isn’t funny, they will not use it. It goes against their comic instincts.
But the comedian has always drawn from the well of political wrongdoing (today’s corporate malfeasance) to make his/her audience laugh. No matter the political stripe of the actors involved, ignorance, hubris, immorality, human folly, and stupidity will always serve as key ingredients in good comedy or satire. The Yes Men understand this as well as Aristophanes did. If satire and humour serve as correctives to reprehensible behaviour, The Yes Men’s identity correction projects fill this role admirably, which explains why so many undergraduate students find their work appealing. Indeed, one of the strongest motivations for students to support Yes Men pranks lies in the moral and ethical dimensions of their performances. As one student put it, because they’re trying to expose wrongdoings while proposing solutions to existing problems, we need more of these pranks to continue the conversation.
That’s not to say that all students have totally embraced the virtues of these pranks. Irony, sarcasm, and parody seem to be most responsible for muddying their reception of this controversial work. If a group is using irony or sarcasm to backhandedly criticize a target, this logic assumes, they are not to be taken seriously. Where sincerity is concerned, their pranks are seen as largely devoid of any meaningful message because to resort to hiding behind golden phalluses instead of embodying straightforward modes of critique. What The Yes Men do, some students have noted, is on par with a comedian insulting his audience for not getting the joke; or worse, using pageantry to obscure any real message from being heard (how a comic might use the word fuck to be funny). And these objections are warranted because indirect forms of communication are often misunderstood (i.e., you must have some interpretative and/or literacy skills to decipher the intended message) and this ultimately leads us to question which strategies are best when we communicate critique to a larger uninitiated audience. More to the point, answers to these questions become even more difficult to assess when we extend the discussion to issues of hoaxing and pranking, already problematic forms of expression in the public sphere.
What I hope to make clear in the pages that follow is that The Yes Men’s body of work offers an important window through which to examine the precarious practice of contemporary hoaxing, and it provides a useful point of departure for thinking about the uses and consequences of using humour and satire to critique the most powerful institutions of our time. In exploring the political, moral, and ethical dimensions of their work, I hope to shed light on why hoaxing and humour have emerged as defining practices of the early twenty-first century.