“Yes Men” Trading ‘Convincing Satire’ for Viral Kookiness — Or Are They?


Screen shot 2009-09-16 at 11.40.12 AMAre the Yes Men losing their touch? The latest stunt from the leftie pranksters/activists is the “Survivaball, “a gated community for one™” that purports to help people cope with climate change by living in laser-firing, iceberg-navigating monstrosity that can be powered by sucking the life force from cows. It claims to be sponsored by “the world’s largest companies,” including ExxonMobil, Ford, and Deutsche Bank. According to Gawker, they’re planning to demonstrate its features in the East River next week.

The Yes Men have been stirring up trouble since the early 2000s with pranks like handing out fake New York Times and impersonating HUD officials post-Katrina. They had a film made about them in 2003 focusing on their exploits that did well on the film festival circuit, and during the Bush Administration their anticorporate stunts were a beacon of hope to many on the political left who felt disenfranchised.

Their latest is a funny concept, and I LOLed at some of the fake demo videos. But how does it stack up to Yes Men stunts of old? One key difference: Their old pranks always tried to be plausible.

Survivaball is satirical, but it’s the kind of satire you expect in cartoon shows, where evil corporations have names like “Conglom-O” and always have menacing smokestacks in the background. It gives itself away from the start. Who is going to see those balls floating down the East River and think, “gee, I can’t believe Deutsche Bank is sponsoring this?” In the Yes Men’s older, sharper pranks,  the goal was always to make people believe that whatever they were doing was for real, even if the pileup of absurdity ultimately gave it away.

Plus, there’s the matter of the Gawker leak, which could be an honest-to-goodness leak, but feels like a publicity drum-up with the big response to Gawker’s big piece on the fake NYT in mind. Taken together, it feels like a viral stunt geared towards the Internet rather than to any onlookers. Maybe that’s the best way to reach an audience in this day and age, but the Yes Men lose something when they wink at the audience and give up on punking real people.

Maybe it’s a function of the times: on their website FAQ, which doesn’t seem to have been updated in a while, they say that “If Kerry had won, we who care about people might have had some hope of affecting his approach, perhaps second- or third-hand, via those who have his ear. With Bush, we have to focus on the preliminary step of getting this plague out of office.” Under Obama, their spoofs don’t quite have the same righteous anger behind them.

Still, this Bryce 3-D-looking ‘demo’ of Survivaballs turning cows into skeletons is pretty great.

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