In 2017, a scam fooled millions of journalists, store owners, investors and ordinary people around the world. But the scammers weren’t after money ― and they were just as surprised as anyone that people believed them.
Even though I was among the many people they tricked, I’ve had a hard time summoning outrage. In the process of their deception, they created one of the most elegant satires I’ve ever seen ― and one of the scariest.
The story begins in the Eastern European country of Georgia. Nearly 40% of Georgia is covered in mountainous forests, but illegal logging has halved the forest canopy, according to The World Bank. Trees turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, and Georgia produces 20 billion pounds of carbon dioxide each year. That’s a massive problem in a country already suffering from poor air quality: An estimated 73% of Georgians are exposed to dangerously high levels of air pollution, causing lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and respiratory infections.
Georgian entrepreneurs Bacho Khachidze and Lasha Kvantaliani developed an app they hoped would address this deforestation, which they called Treepex. Users would pay money via the app to have someone go plant a tree on their behalf.
You can probably guess what came next: crickets.
“Everyone knows we have to plant more trees, but nobody cares,” said Khachidze. At least, only a few hundred cared enough to pay for it.
The duo and a few other collaborators met in a tiny rented office space to bat around some other ideas. They really wanted to make people care about trees, but they had no budget.
“We have to be really, really ruthless,” Khachidze recalls saying. “We have to make something really extraordinary.”
“Everyone knows we have to plant more trees, but nobody cares.”
Then Khachidze remembered an old Georgian joke: “There will be one day when the government will measure how much air we breathe. And they will install devices on our mouth to measure how much air we breathe, and make us all pay for it.”
It was an epiphany. “Let’s invent this device,” he said.
They would make a gadget that supposedly used plant DNA to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, contained in a filter that users would put over their noses to breathe clean air.
Now, they couldn’t really invent that device. But they could pretend. People may not care about trees, but they loved techy gadgets and DNA breakthroughs, Khachidze said. So Treepex hired a designer to make a fake device and produced a promotional video that was professional enough that viewers would actually believe it ― for a few seconds at least, before realizing it was a joke.
No one would believe this device actually existed, Khachidze thought. “Based on logic, you can see there’s no way such a small device can replicate what a tree does.”
But perhaps their satire would make people think seriously about air pollution.
The Treepex team published the video, sent out press releases, and waited. Khachidze expected some social media buzz, but he was completely unprepared for the reaction. Thousands of people shared the video. Tens of thousands commented.
But they weren’t laughing. They were excited, and many wanted to buy the product.
Then the Associated Press asked Khachidze and his collaborators for an interview. They huddled again, trying to decide what to do. This was getting serious. Should they come clean? Or should they keep up the ruse and unleash an imaginary international phenomenon?
You probably know where this is going.
“Look, if you want to spread this message, you know you have to act like a Leonardo DiCaprio or imagine you are a Hollywood star and give this interview to them,” Khachidze told his team. He spent all night standing in front of a mirror, practicing for the interview.
“Once I decided to do it, then everything was so easy,” Khachidze said. He went to the interview, introduced his device, and, with a completely straight face, plugged the gadget in his nose.
AP released a short video, and that’s when things really went off the rails (the outlet has since removed the piece from its archives).
“The next day, it was on ABC, CNN, almost everywhere,” Khachidze said.
Hundreds of newspapers, magazines and online media (including a HuffPost contributor post, which we have since taken down) published articles about the device, including Kvantaliani’s favorite publication, New Scientist. Word of their fake gadget reached 26 million people across the world, according to Treepex’s media monitoring software, before Treepex stopped keeping track. Treepex’s inbox was flooded with people trying to buy the device, suppliers clamoring to sell it, and investors wanting to get in on the ground floor.
Retailers in China, Indonesia and Malaysia, countries with extremely high air pollution, were desperate to get their hands on it. In those places, pollution is more than just a nuisance; 4.2 million people around the globe die each year from exposure to air pollution. In Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, the majority of the population suffers from an air pollution-related disease.
“They took it extremely seriously,” Khachidze said.
Their publicity stunt had garnered more attention than they’d ever imagined. But an uneasiness settled in.
They’d lied, and they had to keep lying. At some point, Khachidze said, “We couldn’t quite draw a clear line between the truth and lies.” Lying to professional reporters and people who were really depending on the device was starting to feel different.
After a month of media frenzy, the Treepex team decided enough was enough. They put out a video admitting their gadget was a gag.
“It’s time to tell the harsh truth: We don’t need electronic devices creating fresh air for us to breathe,” the video explained. “We need trees.”
The video went on to discuss the seriousness of air pollution. But of course, this video wasn’t nearly as popular as the first, garnering only a few thousand views.
From a marketing perspective, the spoof had been a hit. It reached millions of people on a shoestring budget. Georgia’s Business and Technology University even used it as a case study for young entrepreneurs, Khachidze said.
“From this point of view, to hack the market, it was a brilliant idea, brilliant execution, brilliant implementation,” he said.
But ultimately, it failed to get people to actually think about the environment. The Treepex team wanted to show the world how ridiculous a gadget like theirs was. Except it wasn’t ridiculous. Catastrophically polluted air in places where people are forced to wear breathing devices wasn’t an apocalyptic future. In many parts of the world, it was the present.
The hoax had created an image of something specific and personal. Many people think fighting environmental degradation and climate change now is too difficult, too expensive. They want a technological breakthrough to overcome that. And while humans may indeed come up with a tech fix, it may look more like a dystopian breathing tube than blue skies.
The success of the hoax points to a larger question about how we get people to actually care about the environment.
“It’s really, really difficult,” said Ayelet Gneezy, a marketing professor at the University of California San Diego who studies environmental and other pro-social messaging. “It’s not that people are selfish, but they do have to be concerned about themselves.”
“Catastrophically polluted air in places where people are forced to wear breathing devices wasn’t an apocalyptic future. In many parts of the world, it was the present.”
That means moral messaging, like urging people to think of their children or grandchildren, doesn’t work. Plus, there’s something inherently hopeless about trying to save the world.
“The world is just too big of a place,” said Gneezy. “It’s hard to imagine that planting a tree across the world would make a real impact on either one’s own life or the larger world.”
This is where Treepex’s initial app failed.
“When you say you have an app that is increasing something or another, people don’t feel that they are doing a lot to improve things,” said Dan Ariely, a behavioral economics professor at Duke University who studies human decision-making.
The breathing gadget, on the other hand, promised tangible, personal outcomes.
Gneezy noted another tree-planting campaign that produced dramatically different results. Throughout the 20th century, Gneezy’s home country of Israel ran an effort to plant trees throughout the country. Pine tree forests quickly sprang up in the desert. In the end, the Jewish National Fund, which ran the campaign, said it planted 240 million trees.
But in promoting the campaign, Gneezy said, “no one talked about the environment.” Instead, the message was about strengthening Israel, a small country where people could really enjoy the benefits of greenery that provided shade from the harsh Middle Eastern sun and shelter from sandstorms.
The difference between “plant trees in Israel to give us shade” and “plant trees around the world to save the planet” is huge. And that is where environmentalists might take a page out of Israel’s playbook.
Instead of saying “Let’s save the planet,” maybe the message is, “Let’s beautify the neighborhood.” Instead of “Buy solar panels to reduce your carbon footprint,” maybe it’s “Buy solar panels to lower your energy bills.”
Khachidze seems to have internalized this message. He’s since moved on to a new venture: an app that allows users to plant a vine and sends a bottle of wine in return. In providing a product that customers really want, he hopes, they will also help restore endangered vines.
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CORRECTION: This article initially misstated that VOA produced one of the first videos; rather, it was the Associated Press. Language has also been added to note that the story appeared on HuffPost’s contributor platform and was not an editorial product.