Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pranksters Can Deal Out Corporate Headaches

On the surface it looked like just another effort by an oil company to improve its environmental image.

Earlier this week, Chevron (NYSE:CVX) released a statement kicking off a new multimillion dollar ad campaign highlighting its common ground with most Americans on energy issues.

But as journalists around the fast-paced media world began to churn out stories on the “We Agree” campaign, it quickly became apparent that the statement was a hoax designed to draw attention to Chevron’s alleged environmental crimes.

Chevron, apparently, quickly put out a new statement, deploring unnamed environmentalists for “cyber-posing.” But that, too, was a spoof.

It was all the work of the Yes Men, an activist group known for sophisticated PR stunts that play off corporations’ legitimate ad campaigns.

The Chevron hoax highlights the headaches culture-jamming groups like the Yes Men can cause major companies and their million-dollar message machines.

Chevron Gets Punked

Experts say these spoofs can damage a company’s brand, cost them money in legal and PR battles and distract them from their main objectives.

“In a worst-case scenario, one of these stories begins to take on a life of its own and then it’s very hard for companies to regain control of the conversation,” said Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University.

The Yes Men appears to be the most successful of these groups. Founded in 1999, it has attempted to use humor to embarrass everyone from the World Trade Organization and Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW) to the New York Post. The Yes Men have also released a pair of movies, leading some to question the motives behind their stunts.

The Yes Men teamed up with San Francisco-based nonprofit Rainforest Action Network [RAN]for the Chevron spoof in an effort to correct and draw media attention to what it sees as inconsistencies in Chevron’s actual ad campaign.

“That was going to be a very boring monologue. We decided to turn that into a dialogue by presenting another version,” said Andy Bichlbaum, one of the group’s founders.

Not surprisingly, Chevron had a different take.

“We expected something like this would happen. Their predictable stunts are not deterring us from promoting the messages of the campaign, which is about finding common ground on energy issues,” said Morgan Crinklaw, a Chevron spokesperson.

Is Fighting Back a Lost Cause?

The Yes Men fall into a category of stealthy adversaries dubbed culture jammers.

“They are a pain in the butt for major companies,” said Richard Telofski, president of consulting firm The Kahuna Institute and author of "Insidious Competitors." He said that while culture jammers are not considered as much of a pest as Mommy Bloggers, “it can get to the point where it incurs serious costs.”

The costs of a successful spoof are often hard to quantify because they target a company’s brand and reputation. Their bottom lines may also be hurt, however, by increased legal fees, additional advertising costs and a diversion of the company’s attention.

Despite the obvious size difference between an energy heavyweight like Chevron, with some 64,000 workers, and the Yes Men, which doesn’t even have an office, experts advise major companies to tread lightly.

“If a corporation tries to take a comedian to task in the public arena, the corporation is only going to get slammed back. It really doesn’t behoove the corporation” to fight back publicly, said Telofski. “Let your legal department take care of it.”

It’s not clear if Chevron will take legal action. Crinklaw said, “We are still determining our legal recourse.”

Bichlbaum said he doesn’t expect legal action, and RAN said it hasn’t been sued for previous stunts.

However, the Chamber of Commerce filed a civil complaint against the Yes Men last October to protect its trademark and other intellectual property from unlawful use after the group held a phony press conference claiming to be the Chamber of Commerce.

During the fake press conference, which fooled numerous media outlets, Bichlbaum pretended to be a Chamber spokesperson announcing the group had reversed its position on climate-change policy.

"The defendants are not merry pranksters tweaking the establishment. Instead, they deliberately broke the law in order to further commercial interest in their books, movies, and other merchandise,” Steven Law, the Chamber’s chief legal officer said in a statement at the time.

A Chamber spokesman declined to comment further due to ongoing litigation.

Deceitful Campaigns or Insightful Parodies?

“The challenge is many of these groups are really quite good at what they do. They show up with campaigns that are on the surface fairly credible and realistic,” said Calkins.

For example, the phony Chevron press release was nearly identical to the official statement Chevron later put out. The fake release included quotes from actual Chevron officials, and links to Web sites with realistic-sounding domain names that featured spoof advertisements.

After being tipped off about Chevron’s actual campaign by third-party groups that were asked to appear in the ads, RAN was able to put out its phony release even before Chevron’s real one, said Ginger Cassady, a campaigner at RAN.

Asked if their methods were deceitful, Cassady said stunts like this are intended to be a “parody.” She compared the pranks to the work of comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who often use satire to criticize the media, politicians and businesses.

“I think Chevron is really deceitful in their advertising campaigns. We’re actually putting out the truth,” said Cassady.

Cassady said the Chevron prank cost RAN less than “a few thousand dollars,” mostly in salaries. Chevron wouldn’t say how much it plans to spend on its “We Agree” ad campaign.

It’s not clear if this stunt will have any impact on Chevron, but some environmental groups have recently persuaded major companies to change.

Paper manufacturer Boise Cascade decided to adjust its wood-purchasing policies in 2008 partially due to a campaign from RAN. Feeling the heat from Greenpeace and other environmental groups, Nestle announced plans earlier this year to stop using palm oil from companies linked to rainforest destruction.

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