What was genius about it was the way the Yes Men and their helpers understood and sought to exploit a media food chain that now frequently runs from some dude on Twitter to small blogs, and then to bigger blogs, and then maybe, finally, to blogs associated with a major TV and/or print product that, strapped for resources and eager for efficiencies, might just re-purpose some of that bloggy content for broadcast and/or print. (If you're noticing that the web links in the preceding sentence don't go all the way to the end of this chain I'm describing, that's because Gawker called bullshit, seven hours into the hoax, when the activist fiction was just arriving at the larger blog stage of things.)
You can of course talk about the nature of the Yes Men's genius—whether it was evil genius or twisted genius or righteous genius—but still, it takes a certain genius for media manipulation to get even this many people to believe in a fiction like the one they were pushing. Also deeply understood and exploited by the Yes Men: The desperateness with which online media now chase the latest viral video.
I've been told by someone involved in the planning of this hoax—someone who, for now, requested anonymity in order to speak more freely about the hoax's details—that this plan ended up hinging on a video because the Yes Men themselves are in a bit of a transition. Just like the media they're trying to exploit, the Yes Men realize they need to play where the eyeballs are going: online.
They're still focused on producing events that walk right along the edge of obvious parody—in order to point out, after the event is believed, that it's believable mainly because of how routine the absurdest things in this world have become. But they're also trying to find ways to do this in the medium of the moment.
Hence all the elaborate planning. The fake PR agency, the actors, the fake web site and online invitation, the dropping of $5,000 in order to rent part of the Space Needle's Skyline level, the open bar, the cultivation of real attendees who believed they were coming to a Shell Oil party, the construction of the exploding rum-and-coke rig. All of this created a spectacle that, per plan (but to the wider world seemingly unplanned), was "caught on video" and contained a lot of the elements that make a successful viral video go.
The irresistible elements at play here: Humiliation of powerful people, a screaming old lady, food (or in this case drink) in the face, an authority figure demanding the iPhone of the person shooting the video, an argument over whether the person with the iPhone could keep taping, security hustling people out, and all of it amounting to something that can be summed up with four perfect, highly-propulsive letters, FAIL.
With all of that going for them, it's a little amazing the Yes Men's #ShellFail hoax didn't last even longer than seven hours, or go even further than it did.
So why didn't it? Well, because there's also what was not so genius about this plan:
The aim of the video hoax was to draw attention to new, Obama-approved offshore drilling in the arctic, and to point out that Seattle is presently acting as a way-station for two aging rigs headed up to Alaska in search of underwater crude. But, ONE, the acting was really bad. Read the comments on the YouTube video. The fourth comment, posted just a few hours after the video went live, before any major online outlets had been fooled, was: "worst acting ever." Soon after, a lot of the commenters began asking a good question: Why did the woman being sprayed with the geyser of symbolic oil not move? For example, in the horrible language of a lot of commenters: "Why doesnt that dumb bitch fucking move??"
Which brings us to not-so-genius move TWO. The woman getting sprayed is Seattle hero and longtime activist Dorli Rainey. So, for starters, that horrible YouTube commenter owes Dorli Rainey and humanity an abject apology. But with that said, let's consider how dumb a risk this was. Rainey is pretty recognizable in Seattle, and her cover could have easily been blown at an event that drew in, according to my source, about 50 activist-actors and 10 people from Seattle who legitimately thought they were attending an oil rig launch party. True, the circle of people who will attend an oil rig launch party is not very likely to overlap with the circle of people who know Dorli Rainey. But it was still a pretty big, and not-too-smart risk.
THREE, if you're taking a risk like that, you're going to be making sloppy mistakes and underestimating your audience elsewhere. For example, did the Yes Men think that online writers, the people they were trying to fool on their way to a mass audience, were unlikely to know how to check on the domain registration of the fake web site set up to legitimize the fake PR company, Wainwright & Shore, that allegedly planned this event?
FOUR, and I think this may be the biggest not-so-genius part of this: If part of your plan is to fool journalists—who, admittedly, are about as popular with the general public as oil companies, but still—if part of your plan is to fool journalists, and you're also quietly giving some journalists a heads-up and not others, then you've created, in addition to everything else, a great way of pissing off a good number of journalists in a manner that they'll remember for a long time. There are a lot fewer working journalists than there used to be in America, by the way, which means even smaller odds that you'll find others in the future who won't remember this. And while a lot of them may admire your smarts, and even appreciate the embedded critique of the way the media works (and doesn't work), it all makes your next oil-company-busting hoax that much harder to pull off.