Spoof sites – how useful are they?

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Two instances of spoof activist websites have come to my attention recently (although there are no doubt thousands of them around).

The first was created by The Yes Men – the activists behind numerous notable media stunts including impersonating the WTO – and the Rainforest Action Network in the USA.

It is a spoof of the recent Chevron green-washing campaign called “We Agree”. The spoof included this website and a fake media release. Grist reported:

Chevron was planning a spendy (and ballsy) new ad campaign centered on “responsibility” and the phrase “We Agree” but prank-with-a-purpose group The Yes Men, along with activist organizations Rainforest Action Network and Amazon Watch, beat them to the punch by spoofing and releasing their own version of the ads right before Chevron’s actual ad launch. As usual, plenty of media outlets fell for it.

Chevron was understandably annoyed that their thunder was stolen by an activist group. Their media unit issued a statement crying foul:

Today, activist groups have attempted to interrupt the conversation by issuing a fake press release and establishing a counterfeit website, which are not affiliated with Chevron.

Yes Men responded:

“Chevron’s super-expensive fake street art is a cynical attempt to gloss over the human rights abuses and environmental degradation that is the legacy of Chevron’s operations in Ecuador, Nigeria, Burma and throughout the world,” said Ginger Cassady, a campaigner at Rainforest Action Network. “They must think we’re stupid.”

“They say we’re ‘interrupting the dialogue,’” said Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes Men, referring to Chevron’s terse condemnation. “What dialogue? Chevron’s ad campaign is an insulting, confusing monologue – with many tens of millions of dollars behind it.”

The legitimate Chevron site is very slick, but as the Tories in the UK found out, slick ads are vulnerable to spoofing.

The spoof site is not a direct rip off of Chevron’s site – only the message is attacked.

Subsequently, there have been several other spoofs that have appeared organically on the Internet. Here are two:

By all accounts, given the media the spoofs attracted, and with the intent being to highlight Chevron’s greenwashing, Iwould say it succeeded.

The second case of a spoof website being created to “disrupt” the normal operations of the target revolves around the recent Australian furore about the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

Irrigators opposed to the MDB Plan have created a website that is almost identical to the official MDB website.

The official site looks like this:

This move was criticised as having the potential to mislead. PR expert and PRIA councillor Tim Hughes said in an interview on the ABC:

I think it’s clever but I think it’s clever on the surface. I think that to be effective you really have to be up-front and honest in your communications and I don’t think it does that. So from that point of view I’m not sure that it’s got long term impact.

The implication is that a direct copy – albeit with changed text – could cause damage to the organising doing the spoof, through perceptions of dishonesty.

Of course, these two examples are fairly different. The first is aiming to expose the multi-million dollar green-washing that is performed by oil companies. It was expressly using parody to do so.

The second is done to highlight irrigator anger at the Murray Darling Basin plan. As New South Wales Irrigators Council CEO Andrew Gregson said, it’s no parody, “This is trying to tell people the other side of the story.” Gregson says the design of the site was chosen because “The layout of basinplan.com.au works.”

I’m inclined to partly agree with Hughes. The second example by the irrigators is less successful because the design potentially misleads without a purposeful message. The first example by The Yes Men misleads (journalists) with a purposeful intent to satirise.

Saul Alinsky is famous for saying that “ridicule” is an activist’s most potent weapon. That’s why The Yes Men’s stunt works well and strongly makes its point. It’s hard to counteract ridicule, and infuriates the target – as Chevron has found out.

2 responses to “Spoof sites – how useful are they?”

  1. Andrew Gregson Avatar

    Interesting to look back on this after 18 months.

    One of the keys to the Basin Plan campaign has been to raise public awareness of the issue. The issue of oil was simple for Chevron – everyone had an immediate and recogniseable interest in it. Not so with the Basin Plan. Our first major task was to raise awareness of the existence of the issue.

    To that end, the media coverage of the “spoof” site assisted in that. In a fast news cycle, as you’d appreciate, journalists want “angles” before running a story. We provided angles, we got coverage – and we now have a significant national political issue.

    It’ll be decided in coming months, so a further retrospective on the whole campaign will likely also be interesting.

    Andrew Gregson
    NSW Irrigators Council

    1. Alex Avatar

      Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for the comment. From a PR point of view, you certainly succeeded in honing in on the “news value” for journalists to run your story. For a longer term impact though, I wonder how successful the site was in aiding your strategy. Did many people visit the site to get information about your campaign? Did you capture their information/data/email address?

      As far as a campaign site, it would be interesting to compare the success of your site vs the site of the anti-mining tax or anti-plain packaging campaign sites.