Michael Bierut

Just Say Yes

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 "retractions@dowethics.com" 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.

Posted by Michael Bierut on December 8, 2004 01:45 AM

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Hm. Oddly unmentioned at the Yes Men site is Reamweaver(previously Yes I Will), which they've used in the past to generate live-content parodies of their victims' web sites.

Posted by: Su at December 8, 2004 06:03 AM

Michael, I agree that this is a design issue. The idea of "identity correction" is fascinating and often at odds with the identity packages we all design for our clients. Unfortunately, we don't always have the luxury of having perfect clients, and there will always be some level of hypocrisy between the image promoted by the company and who the company really is. One of the interesting things I took away from the Cluetrain Manifesto was that branding can be a barrier between the company and the customer when what is really needed is honest dialogue. Most customers will overlook your flaws if you are honest with them. If the company isn't honest, it might take a vigilante like the Yes Men to correct the imbalance. I don't know if I would put this in the civil disobedience category, but it does seem to fall inline with some of the viral marketing taking place lately. Most notably would be the hijacking of the Ogilvy website. Bush is right that we need "limits to freedom," but banning parody websites won't happen any time soon. Thanks for bringing the Yes Men story to my attention.

Posted by: Adrian at December 8, 2004 11:23 AM

Just a small correction to this great story. "Finisterræ" is the name of a cape in Northwest Spain which, during the middle ages, was believed to be the westernmost part of Europe, and thus, in Latin, the end of the Earth.

Posted by: jdf at December 8, 2004 01:37 PM

Bush is right that we need "limits to freedom".
ARE YOU KIDDING?! What if that included your own right to speak out in forums like this? Once you cross the line its all gray.

I personally commend this kind of guerilla action, especially in its cunning use of design and branding. It takes guts and intelligence to disseminate this kind of truth. The forces that hold power need to be held in check, and if it takes a little deceit to accomplish that I am all for it.

Posted by: Agrayspace at December 8, 2004 02:18 PM

In addition to calling attention to Dow and Bhopal, the hoax also points out a major flaw in how modern journalism works. This story in addition to several in the recent past are just examples of how the media's need to rush a story to air or to print can lead to abuse.

Posted by: Nipith Ongwiseth at December 8, 2004 05:06 PM

“honest people impersonate”

Damn. I can’t think of anything to say that beats that.

Posted by: Gunnar Swanson at December 8, 2004 06:42 PM

Uhh I can . . .

“There ought to be limits to freedom,"

Posted by: Emma at December 9, 2004 06:34 AM

"The forces that hold power need to be held in check…"

…so we should limit their freedom?

Some people would argue that freedoms would include the freedom to murder, rape, imprison, torture. Some limitations aren't a bad idea… they might even be called laws.

Back to the matter at hand, is the Yes Men project (or a lunch counter sit-in), however commendable, an exercise in Design?

I'm unconvinced. Can someone enlighten me?

Posted by: Andrew Montgomery at December 9, 2004 09:17 AM

Design is communication. Sitting at a lunch counter or staging a press conference are not conventional, but they succeeded in communicating to an audience that was not willing to listen. They evoked a response and, in the case of the lunch counter sit-ins, changed the experience of an entire race of people in this country. Try doing that with conventional design methods. In my opinion, guerilla methods have earned their place in design.

Good, bad or indifferent, this is definitely design.

Posted by: Jewel Hampton at December 9, 2004 02:05 PM

The effectiveness of the action is not at question.

Design is problem solving.

Does that make problem solving design?

I haven't read By Design, perhaps I should.

Posted by: Andrew Montgomery at December 9, 2004 03:12 PM

Agrayspace: "The forces that hold power need to be held in check, and if it takes a little deceit to accomplish that I am all for it."

but you also said:"Once you cross the line its all gray."

Hmmm.. C'mon


Posted by: Andrew Knott at December 9, 2004 05:16 PM

I usually resist the "everything is design, everyone is a designer" movement, but Ralph Caplan does make a persuasive case for social protest, carefully planned, as a form of design. As he says in By Design, "The form [of the sit-in] did not pop into existence with someone's spontaneous refusal to set in the back of the bus. It was the conscious creation of strategists like Bayard Rustin and, years later, Martin Luther King, Lr., who adapted Gandhian protest techniques to Western problems."

He calls this "situation design," a term which he credits to Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., and defines as "the concept of moving from the design of things to the design of the circumstances in which things are used."

Obviously, I feel By Design is well worth reading and recommend it highly.

Posted by: Michael Bierut at December 9, 2004 05:16 PM

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