Pranksters Sink the WTO

They started out as small-time pranksters. But when their fake WTO website began drawing invitations from around the world to speak on behalf of the World Trade Organization, they rose to the challenge.
Photo from YES Men: The True Story of the End of the World Trade Organization

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is a giant international bureaucracy with nearly 150 “member countries.” We—the Yes Men—are nobody.

The connection? None. But for three years, we have traveled around the world to important meetings of lawyers, managers, engineers, and policy makers, where we have given elaborate and outrageous lectures about WTO policy—as WTO representatives. If you are of sound mind, you would see through us immediately. Yet to our surprise, we found we had absolutely no trouble fooling the experts.

Worse: we couldn't get them to disbelieve us.

Why are we telling you this? First, because the story is funny. But there is a serious side to the story as well. These experts, after all, are the foot soldiers in the WTO's war on trade unions, environmental protections, and indigenous rights. If they blithely followed us down such nightmarish paths, the real WTO must be able to convince them of anything.

It all started when we set up a parody of the WTO's website—

Now perhaps could be called a fake, but it was a very obvious one. Yet we were flooded with e-mail from lawyers, ministry officials, academics, and assorted others with requests for speakers from the WTO to address important international conferences on global trade—like the Conference on International Services (CILS) in Salzburg, a conference organized by the American Bar Association and the John Marshall Law School of Chicago.

CILS conference, Salzburg

“We're here for the CILS conference,” Mike croaked as authoritatively as he could to the receptionist at the Crowne Plaza Salzburg. It was October 27, 2000. Andy as “Andreas Bichlbauer” was to appear on behalf of WTO director-general Mike Moore.

“Mr. Bichlbauer here is a speaker,” Mike added.

“Dr.,” Andy corrected.

She smiled icily and presented a folder and name tag to Andy. We nodded our thanks, then made our way as calmly as we could to a counter and tore open the folder. We half expected a “Joke's on You!” in big red clown-letters, just as a squadron of Austrian cops came to take us away. What we found instead was this listing: “Andreas Bichlbauer, World Trade Organization, Vienna, Austria. Trade Regulation Relaxation and Concepts of Incremental Improvement: Governing Perspective from 1970 to Present.”

This was just what we had sent in by e-mail, but we couldn't believe our eyes as we saw it in the official booklet. We hovered as long as we reasonably could, staring at the impossible evidence: we really were in Salzburg, we really had been invited to speak as the WTO, and we really were scheduled to do so in just over an hour.

We really were going to prison!

We did not.

In fact, we got away with the absurdity—if not illegality—of what we proposed to a conference of lawyers. It was a proposal to streamline the bureaucracy of elections: corporations paying a PR agency like Hill & Knowlton, who in turn, are paying a TV station, who, finally, are relaying information to the consumer, the voters.

Our solution: Companies directly buy votes from consumers.

“,” Andy as Bichlbauer said in his speech, “is a system that permits voters to voluntarily auction their votes to the highest bidder. It's a forum for people to voluntarily offer their votes for sale, when they don't have a strong affinity for either candidate. It works to streamline the entire process, and as in all market systems, everything works out to the benefit of the consumers—and to the originating corporations, of course.”

The idea of originally came from a graduate student named James Baumgartner. It was his thesis, an ingenious comment on the way money undermines democracy in the U.S.

The reaction to Baumgartner's was swift and nasty. Pundits from Rush Limbaugh to Dr. Laura Schlessinger attacked it. The Chicago Board of Elections filed a lawsuit to stop Chicago residents from being able to buy or sell their votes online. In New York, the Board of Elections threatened to have James's thesis advisor, a lawyer, disbarred.

The reaction to Andy's proposal to international trade lawyers in Salzburg was … well, nothing. Nobody seemed to mind. The audience even gave him a nice round of applause after his speech ended.

“The Nazis actually had a reasonable trade policy, you know,” Andy told a young lawyer during the lunch following his speech. It was another stab to make at least one lawyer mind anything.

“Maybe they've never really been given proper credit—maybe they're not so bad after all.”

“That's not my field of expertise,” the young lawyer replied without hesitation.

“Mine neither,” said Andy.


CNBC TV, July 19, 2000

Our challenge is to get caught.

The opportunity came July 19, 2001, one day before 300,000 people were expected to show up in Genoa, Italy, to protest a meeting of the Group of 8, or G-8. In Paris, Andy—or rather, “Granwyth Hulatberi”—entered the French studios of CNBC-TV for the “European Marketwrap” program. Together with Barry Coates, then director of the World Development Movement, Andy as Hulatberi was to discuss the protest with CNBC-TV host Nigel Roberts.

NIGEL ROBERTS, HOST: In the last two years we have seen a tremendous upsurge of anti-capitalist protest. Why is it that there's suddenly been this upsurge?

BARRY COATES: Well, I think two major reasons.

One is that the rhetoric of what companies say they're doing vastly exceeds the reality. But secondly is that companies are seen to have undue influence on government policies. And many of the protests around these kinds of issues are arguing for change to the rules—to make them fairer to people rather than to create new rights for the big corporations.

This is still a question of national policy—but it's raised to a new level in the international arena through organizations like the WTO.

NIGEL ROBERTS: Well, Granwyth, you're with the WTO—perhaps that's a fair point, that more should be done by organizations like yourself to actually ameliorate those problems.

“GRANWYTH HULATBERI”: Well Nigel, the protesters are of course entirely correct, but we have to see what they're talking about in a relative way.

I mean you have a mass of protesters, an essentially ragtag group, who are trying to compete with a mass of knowledge that we at the WTO, and experts all over the world, have—knowledge that is based in books that have been written since the 1770s, in England, you know, in the 18th and 19th centuries, about this. These books allow us to be absolutely certain that free trade, although it has led to these problems that the protesters correctly point out, is certain to lead to a bettering of conditions for all consumers.

[Barry Coates' head is cocked to one side in disbelief.]

NIGEL ROBERTS: An interesting statistic is to compare the difference between the rich and poor. If you look at the annual global turnover of a firm like Goldman Sachs—$2.2 billion. Look at the GDP of Tanzania: $2.2 billion. The difference is, in Tanzania, it's shared out between 25 million people; at Goldman Sachs it used to be shared out between 161 partners. Now surely it's that kind of inequality...

“GRANWYTH HULATBERI”: Well, of course it is. But I think Barry, as well as all the other protesters, are simply too focused on reality, and on facts and figures. [Coates shakes his head, his mouth agape.] There's an enormous number of experts at all the greatest universities in the world, who have read all these books, who have read Adam Smith and everything since it to Milton Friedman, and these people have solid theoretical bases for knowing that things will lead to betterment.

BARRY COATES: Can I just say that these kinds of simplistic arguments are just too insulting for most people to believe. There are many, many thinkers from around the world—just not the ones employed by the WTO—that think that World Trade Organization policies are deeply damaging to the development prospects of the poorest countries.

“GRANWYTH HULATBERI”: [Hulatberi, scribbling notes, is caught by surprise.] Ah! Yes! Well, I wanted to speak to Granwyth's … sorry, to Barry's point about there being other thinkers.

Well, who actually has the power in the world, and therefore who is correct, in this kind of worldview? I think the answer is easy. And if you look at the views held by myself, my organization and many, many of the decision-makers in the world—the powerful people—they happen to coincide with what I'm explaining. And I think this is enough, in this sort of view.

Shut it down

We had been certain that the stream of rubbish we spouted would at a minimum prod some producer to pull the plug or broadcast a retraction. Instead, we had been congratulated and promised a copy of the broadcast for our archives. We needed another idea to convince others we were fakes.

The idea came when Andy showed the tape of the CNBC Marketwrap show to Bob, in preparation for another chance to represent the WTO—as “Kinnithrung Sprat,” speaking during a luncheon with certified practicing accountants in Sydney, Australia. As the tape wound to the end, Bob let out a low whistle. “Nice,” he said. “Very nice. But you didn't go far enough.”

“Hunh?” said Andy. “I sounded like a complete imbecile. How could I have gone farther?”

“You could have shut it down,” Bob replied.

“Hunh?” Andy repeated.

“Shut it down. Just matter-of-factly announce that you've done an internal review and, Oops! New data! It turns out that globalization really is hurting the little guy as the critics are saying, and you're sorry about that, so you're closing it down.”

The only problem was, asking us to do something systematically smart was like getting a hedgehog to mow the front lawn. We were used to being funny, abject, and meddlesome.

We spent the next few weeks trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, until we finally decided to search for outside help. Mike called up Andy in Paris.

“Hey, remember Barry Coates, that really smart guy you were on CNBC with? Did you ever tell him you weren't really with the WTO?”

“Uh, hmm, no, as a matter of fact.”

Mr. Coates laughed himself into stitches when he realized what we had done, and then generously helped straighten out our tangle of thoughts for the Sydney event.


Sydney speech, May 21, 2002

Today, I have come to accept that my devotion to orthodox free trade methodologies has betrayed me.

This is why I am at peace when I announce to you what I learned yesterday. ... Having seen the effects of policies whose only intent was to bring greater prosperity and peace, the World Trade Organization in its present form will cease to exist.

[A gasp is heard.]

Over the next two years, we of the WTO will endeavor to launch our organization anew along different lines, based on a new understanding of the purposes of world trade. The new organization will have as its foundation and basis the United Nations Charter of Human Rights, which we feel will be a good basis for insuring that we will have human rather than business interests as our bottom line.

Agreements reached under the WTO will be suspended pending ratification by the new incarnation of our organization, which we are tentatively calling the Trade Regulation Organization ...

Finally, the obvious

One hour is a long time to sit through anything without clear plot or punch lines. Yet as Andy droned on with fact after appalling fact, the audience gave him their rapt attention, some periodically nodding.

The UN estimates that poor countries lose about US$2 billion per day because of unjust trade rules, many instituted by our organization. This is 14 times the amount they receive in aid.

When Sprat finally wrapped up, there was a hearty and sincere round of applause.

“I'd just like to thank Mr. Sprat for the presentation that he has done here today,” a shocked moderator said. “I'm sure it will have a profound effect on the way we and the world do business. We wish you every success, every luck, in the restructuring of what has been an interesting part of world history.”

Having agreed to the dismantling of the world economy as we know it, everyone moved to the fancy salmon-and-lamb lunch prepared for our visit.

There was no ice to be broken; everyone had something real and important to talk about. “I'm as right-wing as the next guy,” said a heavy-set man who had struck Mike as angry-looking. “But it's about time we did something for these countries that we've done so well by. We just can't go on like this. It's impossible.”

One of the officials of the accountants' association offered to draw a logo of the new organization for Andy, and sketched an initial idea on a napkin.

Somebody even produced what ought to have been the winning proposal for a new WTO headquarters. Locate the headquarters in a Third-World country. Developing countries could afford to have more representation in meetings, and First-World delegates would daily witness abject poverty, a constant reminder of the Trade Regulation Organization's new humanitarian bottom line.

And so, in the end, one final surprise. One might have thought that there was nothing an audience of international trade experts could do that would surprise us anymore. We no longer assumed we would be thrown off the stage. Nor would we have been caught off-guard if there had been no discussion at all—if everyone had simply filed off to lunch like sheep. What we were entirely unprepared for was everyone being so … happy.

Excerpted with permission from the Yes Men: The True Story of the End of the World Trade Organization (The Disinformation Company Ltd, NY, , 2004). The Yes Men (no relation to YES!

As to their qualifications, in 1993, while still in school, Mike spent a few furtive months performing microsurgery on talking GI Joe and Barbie dolls, switching their voice boxes so that the GI Joes would say things like “Math is too hard,” and Barbies would bark “Dead men tell no lies.” The dolls were returned to toy stores with a note providing a number to call “If you experience problems with your doll.” The numbers actually belonged to TV news desks. ... The Barbie Liberation Front provoked a firestorm of media coverage.

Andy, hired to program little people in a computer action game, secretly created an army of men wearing nothing but swimsuits, who from time to time popped up and showered each other and the player with kisses. Eighty thousand copies of the game were on store shelves before the company noticed the “feature” .... a chance remark to a journalist friend resulted in the kissing boys being featured by media all over the world.