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Oil-Soaked Bears and Fake Businessmen: How the Yes Men and Greenpeace Punked Shell

Last week, a fake video of an oil industry party went viral. I was there. Here's how it all went down

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The casting call had been only selectively specific — it asked for volunteers to play businesspeople, cheerleaders or bodybuilders, but the basic where, when and what of the action had been withheld. Most of us didn’t yet know what issue or corporation we’d be targeting.

Turner, of Greenpeace, introduced the action, explaining Shell’s upcoming exploratory drilling and why Greenpeace opposes it. “This is the beginning to the Arctic oil rush,” he said. “If they find oil this summer, there’s every chance Exxon and all the other majors will follow.” He noted the irony of drilling for oil in waters made passable by climate change. The group’s long-term goal is an international agreement, similar to the one that already exists for Antarctica, putting a moratorium on industrial development in the Arctic.

In the past, Greenpeace activists have boarded drilling ships, but in March Shell was granted an injunction preventing them from coming within a kilometer of its ships. (Greenpeace still plans to follow and monitor Shell’s ships from a distance.) So they looked for something new; the idea for the launch party emerged from a conversation with Andy Bichlbaum, of the Yes Men.

“Instead of attacking or critiquing Arctic drilling, we decided to celebrate it with the biggest party we could dream up — really take it to the logical extension,” explains Turner. “If these people truly are proud of what they’re planning to do, then let’s really celebrate it.”

This is one of the Yes Men’s signature tricks: pushing the bounds of extreme, uncomfortable honesty to see how much their targets will accept without reacting. The fake ads are almost believable — until you pause to think about them. For example: “With Arctic ice disappearing fast, polar bears today can swim hundreds of miles in search of food. We think they can do better. And so can we. At Shell, we’re exploring beyond our limits.” The PowerPoint, earnestly presented by actor Mike Mathieu in his role as a Shell vice president, dismissed the dangers of drilling and celebrated the profits to be made: “In life as in business, pragmatism trumps all. The dire consequences of climate change exist in the realm of possibility, but the oil that is up there is very real.”

And the script for the “debacle” — the planned malfunction of the drink-dispensing rig — was written to reinforce parallels with the Deepwater Horizon spill, with the actors passing responsibility to each other and saying things like, “This was subcontracted out! Shell has no direct relationship with this device.”

At the Space Needle, though, the actors ran out of time for much of the planned script. The rig was supposed to squirt on and on and on until finally the V.P. asked the audience to come help soak up the mess, offering stuffed seals, polar bears and orcas as handily absorbent. But after less than a minute, an employee of the Space Needle unplugged the device. (The actors plugged it back in and tried the “photo op” again a few minutes later.)

It was hard to tell who was a plant and who was an actual, invited member of the oil industry — we’d been instructed to stay in character at all times, chatting about the weather or the importance of easy access to oil or the short-sightedness of treehuggers. People in on the joke surely outnumbered those who weren’t, but certainly no one present raised concerns about the content of the speech or the ads. Finally, the actors and extras dispersed, then met up at a prearranged bar to compare notes, including plenty of speculation about who had been “real” and who was “one of us.” Bhama Roget, who played the party coordinator, was disappointed by the soda derrick’s somewhat lackluster spray. “I wanted that shit to be explosive! I wanted it to throw us to the ground.” Anomie Belle, a musician who teaches media literacy classes to kids and has studied culture jamming at the University of Washington, reflected, “Doing it is way cooler than studying it.”

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