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The Yes Men: Modern eco-activism done right

spoof ad from greenpeace yes men arctic ready campaign

As you might expect, I’ve got a soft spot for environmental activists: I love the passion they bring to their actions, and I respect their willingness to put themselves in sometimes-dangerous situations. But while street theater, march and sit-ins might have been all the rage in 1968, they don’t even make the local news anymore. And if media — any media — aren’t covering it, then the corporate targets of your activism aren’t paying attention.

On the other hand, the media are definitely paying attention to The Yes Men and Greenpeace‘s campaign “Arctic Ready,” mainly because the merry pranksters of corporate activism and the venerable environmental organization have made it so difficult to figure out who’s who. That video of a PR event at Seattle’s Space Needle gone horribly wrong? That was staged by the Yes Men. The website for Arctic Ready, that looks like a Shell promotion? Yep, that’s fake, too. Even the Twitter feed expressing outrage from Shell’s social media team, @ShellisPrepared, is being run by the activism groups.

So how’s a good citizen looking for real information on Shell’s activities in the Arctic supposed to find it? These “fake” social media efforts present a version of the truth surrounding Arctic drilling that the company would prefer to keep under wraps. The Yes Man’s Jacques (a.k.a. Andy Bichlbaum) tells us it’s working because they’ve combined Greenpeace’s “well-thought-out campaign around Arctic drilling, lots of research muscle and some fabulously brilliant and energetic people with ambitious visions” with his own organization’s “experience doing funny things to bring attention to important issues.” When you put that level of passion up against “an extremely well financed but completely unenthusiastic bunch of folks,” the activists’ ability to grab the narrative makes complete sense: Jacques notes that Shell’s representatives “aren’t idiots,” but that “people never do good work when it’s mercenary rather than out of conviction.”

Of course, a lot of people have been fooled by this ongoing campaign of “identity correction.” Perhaps a few are nursing bruised egos, but even more are getting a full view of Shell’s plans for the Arctic. People are engaged in conversations that the company would prefer they weren’t. That’s successful activism — no street theater required.

You may have different ideas if you’re a “punkee” of these efforts, of course. Let us know what you think about this approach to activism.

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Photo credit: Arctic Ready on Facebook