The Best Pranks of 2010

These pranks employed the most state-of-the-art PR and marketing tools, were engineered by the most pedigreed pranksters on earth, and impacted the media and public opinion in far-reaching ways while leaving nary a fingerprint.
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By Andy Bichlbaum and Joseph Huff-Hannon

Strange winds are blowing across this wide, weird land of ours; all is not as it seems. It must be April Fool's Day.

We start with Pepco, a D.C. area energy provider, who startled many area residents today with a door-to-door marketing campaign announcing it would stop delivering energy derived from mountaintop removal coal mining, and will shift instead towards wind & solar energy. Hmm, not so much. Pepco was in fact the beneficiary of a pro bono campaign by the "Greenwash Guerillas," a feisty group of citizens described by the Washington Post as "fed up with companies and policies that worsen climate change."

Last week, also in Washington DC, AIPAC made a most uncharacteristic announcement. As numerous big media outlets reported, the conservative pro-Israel lobby was suddenly changing their long-term hard-line stance and publicly agreeing with the Obama Administration (gasp!) that continued settlements in the West Bank, illegal under international law, are an impediment to the peace process.

Well, maybe not. Turns out this was a "Yes Men inspired" coup by anti-war heroes CODEPINK. The ruse was soon revealed by AIPAC, who denied the statement and was pushed to reiterate its support for illegal settlements.

Travel with us now a bit further west, where Macy's and Smurfit-Stone -- two longtime Missoula businesses that had closed just before Christmas, laying off hundreds of workers -- widely and exuberantly announced an extremely generous "thank you Missoula" concert and giveaway. It did make sense. After all, Macy's had generated $1.6 billion in cash flow thanks in part to similar cost-cutting measures; and Smurfit-Stone's millions in executive bonuses owed a lot to such cost-cutting measures as well, as well as not paying their local taxes.

But, well, not. This too was the work of activists, in this case some angry Missoula citizens who were fed up with wondering why they'd sacrificed prospects and jobs for the companies' profits and bonuses.

While we roundly applaud these efforts, there are, to be honest, a large number of infinitely bigger pranks that haven't received the kind of coverage they deserve. These pranks employed the most state-of-the-art PR and marketing tools, were engineered by the most pedigreed pranksters on earth, and impacted the media and public opinion in far-reaching ways while leaving nary a fingerprint.

There are too many such pranks to count, but in order to give just a bit of credit where credit is due, we'd like to highlight here three of the best from the recent past (and near future). In the great tradition of TV news, we give you a countdown:

Third Place: The Dow Live Earth Run for Water

This one had to be in our list for its sheer ballsiness. The Dow Chemical Company is coming to a neighborhood near you later this month with its "Dow Live Earth Run For Water." Wait, is that really the word "water" there at the end of that name? And is that the same Dow that refuses to clean up the groundwater in Bhopal, India -- site of the largest industrial disaster in human history, committed by Dow's fully-owned subsidiary, Union Carbide -- so that children continue to be born there with debilitating birth defects? Is this the same Dow that has dumped hundreds of millions of pounds of toxic chemical byproducts into wetlands of Louisiana? The Dow that has literally poisoned its own backyard, leaving record levels of dioxins downriver from its global headquarters in Midland, Michigan? Yup, that's the one.

So if your sense of irony needs to be exercised, strap on your running shoes to show how much you support Dow's latest venture into promoting the "Human Element." Then again you could just skip the middle man and give the $50 entry fee to a somewhat more trustworthy cause. It's not quite as funny of course, but it might actually do some good.

Second Place: the Coalition for Chemical Safety

We now turn our attention to our friends at the Coalition for Chemical Safety, a "public interest coalition" made up of "people like you," and looking to reform our nation's chemical safety laws. The coalition couldn't have come along at a more auspicious moment, given that this year Congress has promised to update the archaic Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which currently regulates only a tiny fraction of the 80,000 chemicals on the market.

The CCS counted among its earliest supporters a prominent marine biologist, Holly Lohuis of Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Future Society, who has long spoken out about unregulated chemical dumping and its dangerous impact on marine ecosystems.

Oops! What a prank. Lohuis quickly figured out she'd been duped, and that those "people like you" were actually a coalition of chemical industry players led by the American Chemistry Council. Their pitch-perfect astroturf campaign even mimicked the website of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families (SCHF), a real public interest coalition of 200 public health and environmental groups who are fighting for aggressive reform of our chemical safety laws. Some of those other "people like you" included the Fertilizer Institute, Ashland Chemical Company, PVS Chemicals, Polymer Ventures... and the Dow Chemicals Company.

Lohuis dropped her endorsement like a bad habit, and signed on with the SCHF. Their rallying cry? "Don't be duped."

That was that for the CCS hoax, though the CCS website remains. But since one measure of a successful hoax is its longevity, the April Fools' hoax grand prize winner is none other than...

Grand Prize: Climategate

No, not that Climategate, the one where the emails of a few peeved and defensive scientists, later exonerated by the British parliament, were stolen and used to discredit decades' worth of peer-reviewed science on the seriousness of man-made climate change.

While that hoax was hugely effective -- leading to a precipitous drop in Americans' belief that climate change has manmade causes -- we're talking here about a much bigger Climategate, the mother of all hoaxes, pulled on the entire planet by a single American company, Koch Industries.

Over the last decade, Koch -- a $100 billion-a-year conglomerate dominated by petroleum and chemical interests, with investments in coal, oil exploration and pipelines, and owned by the 19th richest man on the planet -- has poured over $70 million into climate-denying think tanks, into TV and print advertisements, and into the political campaigns of Congressional representatives and Senators who oppose any and all legislation that would mandate even modest cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.

A recent report in the Guardian lays out how the company has for many years now outspent even ExxonMobil in the crusade. While this hoax has been perpetrated for over a decade, the fact that we're only now just hearing about it (from those Debbie Downers at GreenPeace) wins these guys the prize.

Against this rich tableau of practical jokes perpetrated on the American citizenry, our own Supreme Court seemed to be trying to get in on the act this past January. A slim majority of the Court, led by Chief Justice Roberts and Samuel Alito (Bush appointees), handed down a landmark ruling (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) defending free speech -- so long as you define free speech as the wealthy spending humongous amounts of money to make things turn out just so. The decision overturned a number of outdated laws, some of which had been in effect for decades, preventing corporations from using their vast resources to spend on supporting, or crushing, candidates for public office.

Some critics said the decision would allow a "new stampede of special interest money in our politics." Others thought it must be a joke.

It was not. So the question arises: what master tacticians managed to hoax the U.S. Supreme Court itself? The answer, of course, includes the three winners above, and dozens of other such corporate powerhouses.

The story of that hoax is so long and involved it can hardly fit in to a single essay. But there's one other hoax on a government body that could. It's not quite the subtle, near-invisible work evidenced by our winners, but we've just got to mention it all the same:

Honorable Mention: U.S. Congress Fooled Into Trampling the Constitution

Last year's "creative reporting" by self-styled investigative journalist and right-wing darling James O'Keefe has still not received the kind of attention it truly deserves.

Many think that the "ACORN pimp's" prank was merely on ACORN. But it was actually much, much bigger than that: it was actually a prank on the entire American news media, and on the whole U.S. Congress!

First, Grand Master O'Keefe fooled the media into thinking ACORN had done something illegal, by distributing heavily edited tapes of what transpired, and then lying about it fairly convincingly on various news outlets.

The Brooklyn district attorney who later investigated--mainly by simply watching the unedited tape--concluded that there was no unlawful activity whatsoever at ACORN. Congress, however, did not watch those tapes, but, believing the media, passed a law cutting off all federal grants to the organization, finally leading to its recent demise.

A federal judge later ruled that ban unconstitutional. That means our Imperial Wizard tricked Congress into acting unconstitutionally, placing him alongside none other than George W. Bush himself--and O'Keefe didn't even need to steal an election.

This wasn't the first time in American history that bald-faced lying and falsification have been used to target people of color and strip them of their assets and more. But it may be the first time in a long while that it's been done so boldly, so trickily, and with with such undisguised malice. O'Keefe's honorable mention is thus richly deserved.

The aftermath? one of the country's largest grassroots organizations, long dedicated to fighting predatory lending and preventing foreclosures, is killed off. The punchline? Foreclosure rates in the United States last year reached an all-time high.

Of course, next to our winners, O'Keefe is a rank amateur. But if he can find some work with the real pros, the kid could clearly go far.

Andy Bichlbaum is co-founder of the The Yes Men, and co-director of award-winning documentary film, The Yes Men Fix the World.

Joseph Huff-Hannon is an independent writer and producer, a 2008 finalist in the Livingston Award for Young Journalists, and a recipient of a James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. See more of his work at

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