Movie Review: The Yes Men Fix the World

The moral tone of The Yes Men Fix the World is pretty much summed up by the following cheerful bit of narration from the film, describing an appearance by one of the protagonists on a national news program in the U.K.:

“Andy’s about to tell a really big lie. Which, unnnnfortunately, is going to knock $2 billion off one company’s stock price.”

(It’s important for you to know that, in the narration, the word “unfortunately” is said in kind of a shoulder-shrugging, “oops-he’s-a-bad-boy!” tone.)

The Yes Men Fix the World is a documentary about a pair of anti-corporate pranksters known as The Yes Men. Here, from the promotional materials about the film, is what they do:

Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno have an unusual hobby: posing as top executives of corporations they hate. Armed with nothing but thrift-store suits, the Yes Men lie their way into business conferences and parody their corporate targets in ever more extreme ways – doing everything that they can to wake up their audiences to the danger of letting greed run our world.

How do they manage this? From the film’s narration:

“What we do is pass ourselves off as representatives of big corporations we don’t like. We make fake websites, then wait for people to accidentally invite us to conferences.”

So, the film follows its protagonists through a series of ever-more-elaborate, ever-higher-stakes pranks, designed to embarrass big corporations, and to highlight for corporate types and for the film’s audience just how evil the corporate pursuit of profit really is.

Now, while the pranks are clever — it’s hard not to admire the work that goes into some of the Yes Men’s elaborate schemes, and hard not to be amused by the credulity of the corporate types, conference organizers and journalists who are their intended victims — there’s frankly not much particularly clever about the Yes Men’s actual critique of the corporate world.

What exactly does their critique consist in? Well, that’s not entirely clear. There’s some not-too-subtle anti-corporate, anti-market stuff, à la The Corporation. Corporations sometimes do bad things. True. Governments sometimes let them get away with it. True. But much of the critique consists of letting the opposition do the talking: there’s a string of silly-sounding (out of context, surely) claims by economists and spokespersons for market-oriented think-tanks explaining the wonders of the market and the dangers of regulation, while the two protagonists do googly-eyed reaction shots. No, the filmmakers don’t seem to have a clear criticism. But what they do have is a mission: you know, to do something. Each time “Andy” and “Mike” pull another stunt, only to be disappointed not to have thereby changed the world, they say things like, (and I’m paraphrasing, here) “We didn’t quite know what the problem was, but we knew we had to do something about it.” So, their key message is that doing something is much more important than actually understanding the problem you’re trying to fix.

I see two big problems with this.

The first is the problem of shooting a gun into a darkened room. Some of these pranks (the point of which, recall, is unclear) have the ability to do real damage. As noted above, one of the pranks celebrated in the movie cost shareholders of one company (Dow) two billion dollars. That’s “billion” with a “b”. Now bear in mind that that’s money lost not just by the CEO, not just by rich industrialists, but by regular everyday shareholders, including plenty of blue-collar folks whose pension funds are invested in the stock market. Admittedly, Dow stock did bounce back, so as far as I know no one was ruined by the stunt. But did the Yes Men even think about how it would turn out, or whether anyone would be hurt? Not as far as we can tell. The fired into a darkened room. That’s not just raising awareness: that’s taking serious risks. So these are not frat-boy pranks. The goal here, it seems, is to pull off stunts that have serious impact, without enough of an understanding of the problem at hand to have any real idea of whether the impact of those stunts is likely to be positive.

The second problem with the focus on doing over understanding is that there’s substantial risk in sending out the message that the clever scam is more important than actually understanding the world around you. That’s particularly unfortunate given that many of the situation and issues discussed in the film are very serious ones, ones that deserve careful attention and serious analysis in pursuit of long-term solutions. Awareness is a good thing. But pranks to raise awareness need to do more than raise awareness of how clever the pranksters are.

Bottom line: would I show it in class? Yeah, probably. The film has its funny moments, and the issues it discusses (from the Bhopal disaster to climate change) are important ones. But I’d also use it as an opportunity to point out to my students that the thing they ought to be trying to get out of my Business Ethics course is the ability not just to lament corporate wrongdoing, or to poke fun at it, but to understand the world in which that wrongdoing goes on well enough to allow them to critique it in a way that lends itself to real change.

—-
Here’s the IMDB page for The Yes Men Fix the World.
—-
Disclosure: in case it’s not obvious, I was offered and accepted a free DVD of this film, in order to review it.

8 comments so far

  1. E. Thompson on

    It’s unfortunate that people in general don’t see the “BIG” picture when they make decisions or take action. There is always the ripple effect in everything we do. I haven’t seen the movie but I liked your analysis so I’ve tweeted it.

  2. […] next few days, due to one of their recent pranks. So this is probably a good time to point to my review of their film, “The Yes Men Fix the World”. The review concludes as follows: Bottom line: would I show it in class? Yeah, probably. The film […]

  3. Jess on

    Dr MacDonald, it’s a really interesting critique, and while I agree that it’s important to have a broader contextual understanding of the impact you have if you choose to be an activist, I also appreciate that the Yes Men do (and perhaps purposefully) operate on quite a superficial level – and maybe that’s the point?

    Marketing, PR and Advertising (particularly when used by large corporations) creates a spectacle that sells a product, maximises shareholder returns and builds the ‘brand’.

    The ‘brand'(i.e. Chevron) disguises uncomfortable realities about the product (i.e. oil extraction is difficult, risky and can sometimes require people being displaced and oceans to be spoiled) and builds a more affable story about the product and allows consumers to feel ok, the company to grow, and shareholders to feel comfortable about what their money is supporting.

    The value in the Yes Men is not that they offer policy alternatives or have conclusive ‘solutions’, but instead they test the fragility of the brand’s veneer and remind us of the product.

    Ideally, corporations serious about CSR would identify the brand risk that activists like the Yes Men pose, and instead of spending millions in litigation after the fact, take-up the challenge and channel resources into R&D that supports systemic change required to operate ethically and sustainably in a contemporary society.

    I look forward to the day when the Yes Men ‘lose’- I would love to see a major corporation withstand the scrutiny and use the ‘attack’ as an opportunity to announce with authenticity and authority, that they are actually doing something meaningful.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Jess:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      Unfortunately, I think activities like those of the Yes Men pose a risk no matter whether the corporation involved is serious about CSR (or business ethics) or not. They Yes Men simply don’t seem to care about the consequences of their actions, beyond a short-term interest in raising consciousness. And whose consciousness do they raise? To what end? It’s all a mystery. Does anyone really not know about the problems with oil (or whatever), in 2010?

      I have all kinds of respect for *smart* activism, the kind that tries to raise consciousness about genuinely-underappreciated problems, and (ideally) to suggest solutions. The Yes Men do neither.

      Chris.

  4. Jess on

    I guess if you define ‘risk’ as pure economics – share prices going down, then you’re right and I agree that the Yes Men do pose this risk, very effectively.

    Do corporations consider poor public perception of their brand important as a risk also? Evidently, otherwise they would not spend so many millions on PR and advertising (oh and litigation).

    Would corporations ever change bad practices out of their ‘goodness of their hearts’? Not if it affects their bottom line. Unless, of course pressure either directly by their shareholders and customers or by the Government.

    This is where I think raising awareness of an issue (time and again if it is being ignored) is critically important. Not because it provides an answer (most problems are complex), but because it is a catalyst for top-level discussion and ideally action – the Yes Men and other activists play an important role as agent provocateur.

    I must admit, I’m a bit surprised by your question “Does anyone really not know about the problems with oil (or whatever), in 2010?” The BP oil spill in the Gulf this year unequivocally highlighted the health, social, economic, environmental, political and ethical problems associated when corporations pursue profits without systemically integrating a code of ethics or responsibility into their operations.

  5. Chris MacDonald on

    Jess:

    Just remember: money is never just money. Money puts food on the table. Lots of blue-collar workers’ retirements depend on pension plans that are invested in corporations.

    And yes, corporations do sometimes do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, even if it affects the bottom line. Quite often. Not as often as we’d like, but often. (My intention here isn’t to defend corporations generally; but you did ask the question.)

    And the BP spill was precisely what I had in mind when I asked “Does anyone really not know…” It’s precisely the high-profile of problems i the oil industry that makes me think the Yes Men are using the issue to raise THEIR profile.

    Chris.

  6. […] Although you could debate their contribution to “change” (see Chris MacDonald’s blog on this) they certainly are able to draw attention to all sorts of issues they consider injust. They are […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: