ISCI is a cross-disciplinary research centre working to further our understanding of state crime: organisational deviance violating human rights

Interrogating the Corporate Machine


‘I won’t believe it until I see it on TV.[1]

On 4 December 2004, to mark the 20 year anniversary of the Union Carbide chemical disaster in Bhopal, India, a man posing as a public spokesman for Dow Chemical appeared on BBC World and announced that Dow would accept complete financial (and ethical) responsibility for the disaster.[2] The BBC had contacted the representative through what it believed was the official Dow Chemical corporate website (, which bore the official Dow Chemical logo. As was later revealed both the website and the spokesman, operating under the alias ‘Jude’ (the patron saint of the impossible) ‘Finisterra’(Earth’s end) were part of a wider action by the group the Yes Men.[3] Less than half an hour after the televised ‘admission’ of culpability, Dow Chemical stock dropped 4%, in real terms resulting in loss of over $2 billion. For the Yes Men, this represents perhaps the most prominent example of their self-termed ‘identity correction’. Journalist Tome Vanderbilt describes this process as, ‘a play on the idea of ‘identity theft’ – in which members appropriate the identities of corporations or government bodies in order to speak truths that, ostensibly, those entities dare not’.[4] The ‘infiltration’ actions of the Yes Men rely on self-engineered cases of mistaken identity – as ‘trusted’ information channels unwittingly collude with the group by inviting them onto television as official representatives of the corporation. The Yes Men as such are reliant on a necessary co-dependency between the dominant discourse and their action and reaction. Driven by an anti-corporate agenda, the Yes Men and their interventions succeed precisely because the tactics they utilise deny any critical distance.

‘The Yes Men blur the line between activism and performance by creatively playing with the authoritative rituals and discourses of government organizations and multi-national corporations, often in order to provoke critical reflection from the audiences on the targeted institutions.’[5]

The Yes Men create their own ‘monolithic’ construction of the corporate machine. They succeed in a form of extreme over-identification by adopting the rituals of ‘the corporation’ (the suit-clad impostor) within the dominant capitalist ideology. As the dress of interrogation, the ‘uniform’ of infiltration has become the Yes Men’s ‘pin-striped suit’ of capitalism. However, by operating within new media models, the Yes Men necessitate a subtle but fundamental difference in the manner in which their actions are received by the audience, society and ultimately the market. Where many traditional artist-activist groups utilised an ‘excess’ so as to avoid the ultimate danger of being taken literally, the Yes Men are effective precisely because they seek to deny any critical distance at all. Public outrage, and the subsequent stock market plunge of Dow Chemical stock, occurred precisely because the public, and by extension the dominant ideology (the market), took what they said literally. To this extent their act of affirmation is as extreme as is possible. After they were revealed as ‘impostors’ their action assumed a different significance, one diluted to a form of farce, which although useful as a form of traditional capitalist parody, was less effective than when they embraced the authority mistakenly bestowed upon them and, through their extreme rhetoric took the logic of corporate globalization to its atrocious yet logical extremes.

The Yes Men’s appearances on TV, subsequently circulated and disseminated via multiple media outlets, succeed because they were received through a medium supposedly legitimised by pluralistic market news. This could be argued created a postmodern ‘hyper-reality’.

As highlighted by John Waite on hearing the news about the release of his cousin, ‘I won’t believe it until I see it on TV’ (1991); the TV becomes the barometer with which to truly judge reality. The function of new information channels has evolved from conveyers of information to manufacturers to legitimisers. Reality is not only true when it is on TV; it is true precisely because it is on TV. This ‘faith’ in the new media technologies and their utopian properties mirror the attitude towards the State in totalitarian systems. Just as news reports about imaginary crop outputs in theSoviet Union were legitimised and enforced by the state apparatus, so the Yes Men’s version of reality is accepted and therefore made available and successful as consumption products through the institutional legitimisation of the BBC World Service.

Various Yes Men actions utilise the postmodern acceptance of this information exchange. They define this ‘hysterical position’ with the ‘paradox of “speaking truth” through a lie. [6]
However, while the success of these tactics rely on their very ‘invisibility’, in most cases this results in an inability to transcend and convert this opposition into a viable alternative, offering little apart from a completely negative critique of the corporate system. Although temporarily embarrassing, the dominant pluralist/capitalist ideology can easily ignore or dismiss acts of negativity or dissention by responding, ‘Yes… but what do you want instead?’ Where these tactics were more successful in totalitarianism regimes precisely because this question could not be asked, in the current context the assumption that ‘there is no alternative’ supposedly makes the question impossible or at best irrelevant. For example, when it was revealed the Yes Men’s Dow Chemical’s confession was a hoax, the stock market reacted positively and returned much of the value that the company had lost. Unlike a totalitarian hierarchy of power, the liberal (or shall I say corporate monetarist) discourse is perfectly suited to absorb instances of mimicry or parody as these actions ultimately lack an alternative.

[1]  John Waite on hearing of the release of his hostage cousin Terry Waite in November 1991.

[2] Boyle, Michael Shane. Play with Authority!: Radical Performance and Performative Irony. (New York, Rudopi B.V. 2011) p. 199

[3] Originally operating under the name R™ark, a play on the phrase ‘arty mark’ and corporate trade-marking, the group now known as the Yes Men were formed in 2003 by Jacques Sevrin and Igor Vamos.

[4] Vanderbilt ‘Affirmative Action’ Artforum 43 pp. 55-56 (Feb.2005) cited Boyle p.201

[5] Boyle p. 201

[6] Zizek, Slavoj, Tarrying with the Negative, 1994 (Durham, Duke University Press)