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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

Photo Credit: Brooke Jarvis via ArcticReady on Flickr


At a private party in Seattle’s Space Needle — ostensibly hosted by Shell to celebrate its new venture into Arctic drilling — an elderly man attempts to serve a drink from a model oil rig, erected next to an assortment of stuffed polar bears and a miniature iceberg bearing the Shell logo.

Suddenly, brown liquid comes jetting out, soaking a screaming woman. No one can shut down the flow; some try to staunch it with the polar bears. The person who took the video gets chased out and threatened.

Perhaps you’ve already seen the video, which spread rapidly across the Internet yesterday. It was, as the many news outlets that reported the story noted, an almost-too-perfect metaphor for the dangers of Arctic drilling, particularly given that the drilling rigs Shell plans to use this summer share a designer in common with the Deepwater Horizon rig that belched oil for three straight months in 2010. An unstoppable spill onto ice — even if just soda from a model rig — is exactly the kind of P.R. that Shell wouldn’t want.

Which makes sense, given that the video was the result of very elaborate — and very expensive — activist hoax.

Shell does plan to begin exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic this summer — the first company to do so, ever, thanks to the access provided by newly ice-free Arctic summers. But it did not plan the party, or even know it was happening. It did not create the website, complete with a kids’ section, to promote its Arctic drilling plans. It didn’t create or approve a series of tongue-in-cheek advertisements that cavalierly celebrate drilling. And, once reporters confirmed that the event was fake, the company did not release the angry press release that threatened legal action from Shell against the activists and any publications that reported the story.

All that was the work of activists associated with the Yes Labs and Greenpeace, who began collaborating on the project late last winter. It represented a major tactical shift for both groups — the Yes Men have crashed other corporate conferences and events, but never hosted an entirely fake one. And Greenpeace? “Ten years ago, we would have been hanging off the side of the Space Needle,” said James Turner, a media officer for Greenpeace USA. “Now we’re booking a room in it.”

Did you notice the woman on the left side of the video, wearing a gray suit and occasionally blocking the shot (oops)? That’s me. Curious to know what goes into conceptualizing and planning a prank as elaborate as this one, I volunteered, along with about 30 others, to come to the event and pretend to be extremely gung-ho about Arctic drilling.

The fake party took place on Wednesday night in a luxury banquet hall midway up Seattle’s Space Needle, over lobster, caviar and bourbon. The dress rehearsal took place the night before, over pizza in a tiny, dingy gallery.

About 30 people, all wearing our best attempts at corporate formalwear, had gathered, entering cautiously by twos or threes. Most of us had heard about the event by email, either straight from the Yes Men or forwarded by friends. Some had been specifically recruited in advance for key acting roles, among them Dorli Rainey, the 84-year-old activist who gained national fame after she was pepper-sprayed in the face at Occupy Seattle. In the hoax video, she’s the woman who’s sprayed in the face by the soda derrick. Paul Horiuchi, a retired actor and singer who’d once been a regular extra on the show “Northern Exposure,” had been recruited to play the engineer of the Kulluk, one of the drilling rigs Shell plans to take to the Arctic this summer, currently moored in Seattle. In the video, he’s the man who sprays the soda. Horiuchi is 76; part of his role was to emphasize what the activists consider to be the unsafe age of the ship (according to the Seattle Times, the last well the Kulluk drilled was in 1993). He wore a tuxedo from his days in the Seattle Symphony Chorale. “I haven’t worn this in 10 years,” he said. “I didn’t know if it would still fit.”

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