The Greatest Media Pranks of All Time

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Herein I highlight some glorious media pranking. I chose the events on this list based on several criteria for greatness. They are heavily weighted towards the event’s relevance socially or politically, its humor, and its impact. Pranksters pull shenanigans for a variety of reasons. Sometimes for self gain, sometimes for lunatics, sometimes for shits and giggles. In the examples here, I believe the perpetrators of these media pranks achieved a level of high art. Each of these pranks deserves my highest rating: four out of four fists.


10. The APEC Summit Prank – The Chasers

Part of a series of pranks called the “Chaser’s War on Everything” were a series of comic stunts targeting the APEC Leaders Summit over the course of a week in Sydney, Australia.

 

On September 6th 2007 in Sydney’s Central Business District. Chaser Julian Morrow directed a motorcade with Canadian flags, breaching the restricted APEC security zone . The Chasers weren’t even stopped when Chas Licciardello jumped out of the limo dressed from head to toe as Osama Bin Laden,.

The Chasers made for many non-amused Australian officials. Everyone else found it hilarious.

While technically not a prank on the media in say, the way Joaquin Phoenix punked the media in fake-but-presented-as-true documentary I’m Still Here, The Chaser prank is more relevant so I chose to include it here.

The point of the prank was explained on the show – “If someone as stupid as George W Bush can get seat at the APEC table to discuss the War on Terror, then shouldn’t we open it up to all the players in world terror like Osama bin Laden”. The wonderful key word here is “all”.

Love it!

The ineptitude of the world conference’s security was on full display. Instead of being forced to stop the car at any checkpoint, the Chasers voluntarily stopped and explained to security they need to turn around (which took place outside of George W. Bush’s hotel). A security guard gives them cart blanche telling them “the road is yours”.

While this prank was somewhat superfluous compared to others on this list, it was very funny and it underscored the absurdity of Bush’s war on terror. This one scores points in the areas of ballsiness, and outlandishness.

 

9.  The Deep Throat’s Press Conference – Alan Abel

“Deep Throat”, the Watergate whistleblower depicted in All the President’s Men was the most famous anonymous leaker in history.

Following the Watergate scandal, Abel hired an actor to pose as Deep Throat for a press conference in New York City attended by one hundred fifty reporters. Scott Meredith, Literary agent, offered $100,000 to buy the rights to the imposter’s story. At the news conference, the Deep Throat impostor argued with his purported wife, then fainted and was carried away in a waiting ambulance.

As for Deep Throat, it would take another three decades before the real informant revealed his identity.

While this prank makes less of a social statement than Abel’s Campaign to Clothe Animals, its sheer audacity and success wins this spot. It’s probably the most improbably pulled off stunt on this list. It’s hard to believe this actually happened, but it did. Could the corporate media be duped this badly today? I doubt it, but I’d like to think it could.

Abel was a genius in figuring out logistics of his elaborate hoaxes. More of Abel’s historic antics can be seen in the documentary Abel Raises Cain directed by his daughter. It’s too bad Abel never made a living with his media-pranking talent like some of the others in this list, but that only makes him more endearing, more pure in his subversive predilections and he inspired those that came after him.

8. Sarah Palin Phone Punked– The Masked Avengers

This Canadian radio duo known as the Masked Avengers from Montreal are well known for their prank calls, and on the 1st of November 2008, they dialed for dimwits and reachedRepublican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The ‘Masked Avengers‘ (a.k.a Sébastien Trudel and Marc-Antoine Audette) tricked Palin into believing that she was speaking to French president Nicolas Sarkozy. Hey, she tricked herself into believing that anything that came out of her mouth was anything more than more CO2 polluting the atmosphere.

On the call, the fake Sarkozy talked to Palin about foreign policy, the election and Palin’s love of hunting.  When they revealed her punking, she wasn’t amused.

Sarah Palin being her stupid self was never more incompetently hilarious. The Sarkozy impression was so cartoonish, the delivery and what they are saying, so over-the-top. They even compliment her performance on the pornographic production “Who’s Nailin’ Paylin” and she thanks them.

This interaction is not brilliant just from its gut-splitting hilarity, but it’s only one true guide to Sarah Palin Incorporated that anyone would ever need: a clueless, shallow, self-promoting dumb-as-a-doornail clown. Even George W. Bush would have hung up within the first few seconds.

On laugh value alone, this one is a true gem in the annals of pranking. This kind of direct public humiliation of a candidate on a major party ticket by a couple of devastating comedians is unprecedented in history. I would also like to think it was a contributing factor in the McCain/Palin ticket losing the 2008 election by a thin margin. Though by that time, the tide was turning on the Republican ticket and even McCain’s camp was pissed about another display of Palin’s ineptitude. Any Republican voter who actually heard the call could not be in denial The prank might be considered one of a number of tiny death nails on the waning candidates.  On that count, it could be the most important media prank ever.

Unfortunately the self-serving career of Sarah Palin survived the election itself and Palin went on to become another reptilian Fox News commentator. Thank God it wasn’t worse. And maybe we have The Masked Men to thank in small part to that.

By the way, Dishonorable Mention on this list goes to the Fox News Network. Started in 1996, The “fair and balanced” Fox News Network is unfortunately the longest and most influential media hoax ever perpetrated on the American people and the world.

7. The Guantanamo Prisoner at Disneyland – Banksy

Probably the most darkly bizarre prank on the list, On September 2006, famous anonymous street artist Banksy.  Banksy blew up an inflatable doll looking like a Guantanamo Bay detainment camp prisoner (orange jumpsuit, black hood, and handcuffs) and then placed the effigy within the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California.

Of course Disney’s security and the media freaked out like the stunt was some kind of danger at what was obviously a political piece of performance art – a rude awakening in a carefree cartoon world to wake up to what’s really going on.

The piece remained in place for one and a half hours before Disneyland’s security staff shut down the ride and removed it amid fears over public safety, ensuring wide news coverage.

You’ll get a better context of the protest by watching the segment from the Banksy documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop as well as the WTF faces of onlookers

On a side note, if the production of Exit Through the Gift Shop and/or the creation of street artist Mr. Brainwash featured in it have been rumored to be media pranks, but no one seems to know for sure.


6. The 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner Speech – Steven Colbert

Before Steven Colbert’s book was on your mom’s coffee table, before he was safe for middle-aged Mom’s across the “Colbert Nation” was Stephen Colbert 1.0.   Before he “tuned up” or “tuned down” his character, he was always tuned up.

Before Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart showed their cards with their limits on ruffling feathers with their “Rally For Sanity” was a squandered opportunity for channeling that willingness from the crowd into something real or at least making it into a meaningful protest instead of something as inconsequential as a flash mob. Stephen Colbert’s performance at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner is hands down, Colbert’s finest moment.

In the aftermath of a Iraq, a calamitous war based on lies that took countless innocent lives based on lies  Here we see Colbert in a roomful packed with Washington political and media wolves and he insults all these powerful people on their own turf with satire of brilliance that’s off of the charts.

The very pissed off expressions on Bush’s face were priceless.  I am convinced it this episode will become even more important to historians as time goes on. Colbert lambasted the power that be, openly vocalizing of their “corruption” to their feckless faces. Oh, man. Only in the United States would an interaction like this be possible. It could almost be disqualified as media prank because from the Colbert had a legitimate invitation to the dinner. He was invited to speak by Mark Smith, the outgoing president of the White House Press Corps Association. Smith later told reporters that he had not seen much of Colbert’s work. The media had no idea what they were in for.

The only detracting part of the appearance was Colbert blunting the sting of the whole thing will a silly video of himself being chased around by White House correspondent Helen Thomas. Maybe he thought he had to do it to get out of there alive. Despite this, the response was colossal.

Although President Bush shook Colbert’s hand after his presentation, several of Bush’s aides and supporters walked out during Colbert’s speech, and one former aide commented that the President had “that look that he’s ready to blow”.

The impact of this appearance was enormous and its execution brilliant. So much so, the corprorate media did its best to downplay Colbert’s speech, but the cat was out of the bag. An Excerpt from Wikipedia:

Some commentators, while noting the popularity of Colbert’s dinner speech, were indignant at the perceived snubbing he was receiving from the press corps,[47][57][58] even though he was the featured entertainer for the evening.[12] The Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin, calling it “The Colbert Blackout”, lambasted the traditional media for ignoring Colbert while focusing on the “much safer” topic of President Bush’s routine with Bridges.[59] Media Matters was especially critical of the television news coverage. They reported that ABC’s This Week, NBC’s Sunday Today, the NBC Nightly News, the morning shows of the three major networks, and CNN’s American Morning all focused on Bush’s skit and “ignored Colbert entirely”.[30] Media Matters also contrasted the lack of coverage Colbert received to the extensive coverage that Don Imus drew for his controversial insults of Bill Clinton at the 1996 Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association Dinner.[30] Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism professor Todd Gitlin remarked, “It’s too hot to handle. [Colbert] was scathing toward Bush and it was absolutely devastating. [The mainstream media doesn't] know how to handle such a pointed and aggressive criticism.”[60]

On June 13, 2007, he was presented with a Spike TV Guys’ Choice Award for “Gutsiest Move”. He accepted the award via video conference.[75] Six months later, New York Times columnist Frank Rich called Colbert’s after-dinner speech a “cultural primary”, christening it the “defining moment” of the United States’ 2006 midterm elections.[7][76] Three and a half years after the speech, Frank Rich referenced it again, calling it “brilliant”[77] and “good for the country”,[77] while columnist Dan Savage referred to it as “one of the things that kept people like me sane during the darkest days of the Bush years”.[77] The editor of the The Realist, Paul Krassner, later put Colbert performance in historical context, saying that it stands out among contemporary US satire as the only example of the spirit of the satire by Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor, which took risks and broke barriers to free speech, “rather than just proudly exercising it as comedians do now.”[78]

This is probably the ballsiest public confrontations of a sitting Commander-in-Chief by an entertainer ever.  Speaking truth to power has never been more palpable and hilarious. This even outshines the tall bar that was Michael Moore’s gotcha interview with Charleton Heston, then NRA President in Bowling for Columbine.  At the time seemed, one of the ballsiet particularly ballsy.

The appearance resulted in a massive spike in the Colbert Report’s audience.  Soon Colbert became a recognized household name brand, best selling books and rising rating ensued. Outside of the number one spot, this the best example of a prankster really profiting from a fantastic prank.

5. A Punk Prayer – Pussy Riot

Three Russian girls, including the very hot one, staged a “gotcha” anti-Putin protest performance in a church. Authorities had them immediately arrested on charges of “hooliganism” with the excuse Pussy riot was promoting religious intolerance.

While, it’s true this qualifies more of a stunt than a prank on the media. What made i on this list is not the quality of the stunt itself, but rather how the media picked up the story of the prank. While Pussy Riot barely got to even perform the song before they were arrested, The staging of this videotaped display is testament to their media savviness. “A Punk Prayer” became an anthem. It’s not very funny or clever. The girls “singing” is unbearable, the lyrics sophomoric, but the entirety of their protest and subsequent arrest was explosive.

 

The Documentary Film Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer demonstrates the less than enlightened repugnant ignoramuses of the Russian Orthodox church members who wanted to see Pussy Riot crucified. This same church had been banned to worship during the Soviet era.

What the Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevic lack in artistic talent or originality, they make up for with one in spades for bravery and media impact. Plus they have one of the best band names ever, even if they aren’t a actual band.

Whereas the other pranks on this list carried little if any negative consequence for their pranksters, Pussy Riot paid a high price for this prank’s execution. It’s of no small matter that most of the protests and pranks on this list happened in the United states. The freedom that the United States has historically afforded its citizens  should be of some consideration:. Those freedoms that are being eroded every year.

In truth, of course, Pussy Riot will never be free as long as Russia remains in the hands of a corrupt government lead by strongman. It’s the direction the U.S. is has been headed since the Bush era.

The images of the show-trial were appalling. It’s enraging that these non-violent harmless young women were incarcerated. Exercising a human right to protest was too much a threat to the ruling status quo.  The publicity generated by this daring and seemingly unsophisticated punk protest and subsequent arrest was nothing short of astounding.  In all, the stunt did more to highlight corruption through protest than anything else listed here.

Finally at the end of 2013, Putin released about a hundred prisoners including the two remaining imprisoned Pussy Riot members  (one was freed during the trial). Pussy riot called Putin’s prisoner release it for what it was:  a media stunt.  Whatever you say about them, these girls got balls.


4. The Dow Chemical BBC Hoax – The Yes MenOn December 3, 2005, the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, Andy Bichlbaum of the Yes men appeared on BBC World News as “Jude Finisterra”,a Dow Chemical spokesman.Dow owns Union Carbide, the company responsible for the chemical disaster which killed thousands in Bhopal and left over 120,000 with lifelong medical ailments.

Bichlbaum as “Finisterra,” announced on live news that Dow was to liquidate Union Carbide and funnel the resulting $12 billion into paying for medical care, clean up the disaster site, and fund research into the hazards of other Dow products. After two hours of wide coverage to three hundred million viewers, Dow Chemical issued a press release denying the statement. The coverage of hoax announcement of a cleanup while their stock took a dive that day. While the media adopted the tactic of labeling the prank a “cruel hoax” – the victims of Bhopal saw it for what it was, as featured 2009 Documentary The Yes Men Fix the World.

This prank required tremendously clever preplanning, extremely intelligent character dialogue and improvisation skills along with an Academy- Award-deserving performance by Andy Bichlbaum.  This one of the most admirable media pranks in history because it was giving voice to the voiceless. How many Americans have even heard of Bhopal? A few more now.

3. The Pentagon Levitation – Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, the Fugs and 70,000 Vietnam War Protestors

This  1967 prank, orchestrated by Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg  involved a mock gathering protesting the Vietnam War (that many media believed was a intent of the protestors) intended to levitate the Pentagon.

On October 21, 1967, 70,000 peaceful and very enthusiastic demonstrators gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the D.C. Mall to protest the war in Vietnam

Allen Ginsberg led Tibetan chants to assist Hoffman

The gathering to exercise the Pentagon was written as a magical incantation by Ed Sanders of the Fugs and went like this:

In the name of the amulets of touching, seeing, groping, hearing and loving, we call upon the powers of the cosmos to protect our ceremonies in the name of Zeus, in the name of Anubis, god of the dead, in the name of all those killed because they do not comprehend, in the name of the lives of the soldiers in Vietnam who were killed because of a bad karma, in the name of sea-born Aphrodite, in the name of Magna Mater, in the name of Dionysus, Zagreus, Jesus, Yahweh, the unnamable, the quintessent finality of the Zoroastrian fire, in the name of Hermes, in the name of the Beak of Sok, in the name of scarab, in the name, in the name, in the name of the Tyrone Power Pound Cake Society in the Sky, in the name of Rah, Osiris, Horus, Nepta, Isis, in the name of the flowing living universe, in the name of the mouth of the river, we call upon the spirit to raise the Pentagon from its destiny and preserve it.

The Yippies were behind a more famous event — the throwing of cash into the  Stock Market trading floor, inciting mad money-grabbing antics, but the Yippies’ Pentagon Levitation reached an unrivaled participation level and the protest of the absurd by being absurd never reached greater heights.

While Hoffman became famous for his protests, the theatrical component of the Pentagon Levitation that resulted in a media psyche-out protest deserves greater recognition . John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s  staged a more pedestrian anti-war protest called the“Bed-in for Peace”.  They knew what made the media tick, so they put themselves out as “clowns” as Lennon said.  Even the youth of today might have heard of the Bed-in for Peace as the media still reruns the footage of the Bed-in For Peace quite often to this day as a quintessential Vietnam-era protest.

Which event was given more coverage? One famous face or 70,000 protestors? Why?

In any case, Lennon’s theatrical stunt doesn’t compare to the Pentagon Levitation for its spectacle, bizarreness, and immediate communal participation in righteous outrage.

2. The Disbanding of the World Trade Organization – The Yes Men

As you might have guessed, I’m a major fan of The Yes Men and they are the only ones to appear twice on this list. The Yes Men are the unrivaled kings of modern political protest via media pranking. The brilliance and the bite of their satire is without equal. The many hijinks of The Yes Men could really compete for any spot on this list, but then I wouldn’t be as much variety for important contributors.

The Yes Men posed as representatives of the WTO at a conference of influential attendees.

The meetings attendees appear on camera and describe how delighted they are that the WTO is disbanding. In the Canadian parliament, questions were asked about what to do now that the WTO was dissolving.  The real WTO had to respond to the prank. The media prank was featured in the 2003 Documentary The Yes Men.  The Yes Men sent 25,000 Press Releases and the announcement even made it to the floor of a session of the Canadian Parliament.


1. The War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast – Orson Welles

The Godfather. The King Kong Daddy of all media pranks. A long time ago on a planet we call Earth lived a people who questioned little they heard from the talking box known as radio. October 30, 1938, Orson Welles unleashed his Mercury Theater directed radio program adaptation of H.G. Wells science fiction martian invasion story “The War of the Worlds”.

The fact that H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds was book written decades before and that the Radio Show introduced itself as such during the opening and closing of the show made little differenced to the listening populace.  The authorities even tried shutting down the show during the airing, but Welles wouldn’t have it. The next day The New York Times Headline read  “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama As Fact”

This prank alone catapulted Orson Welles to celebrity status, a career exploding moment that lead to many other opportunities.  Just four years later at the age of 30, Welles would direct Citizen Kane, routinely cited by film critics everywhere are the best film ever made. Like Citizen Kane, The War of the World Mercury Theatre broadcast stands as a monolith to high art, a landmark piece of our collective heritage. Brilliantly directed and performed  piece of art. By far the most famous and beloved. It’s a timeless story – the announcement of the world’s destruction through foreign invasion.  The social implications haunt us to this day and are timeless. This media event gets at everything  – our primal fears, the frightening gullibility of the masses – and us.   It keeps us guessing – what it really meant to be a prank?

The Mercury Theater Broadcast the only event on this list to achieve a truly mythic status. It deserves it. But why the other pranks in this list are so far removed from the popular consciousness opens an interesting discussion. One possible explanation is an indictment of the megaphone controllers themselves – the corporate media. They celebrate their power to influence the public –   a power that’s very real.

That’s why it should be co-opted by the voices of counter-spin whenever possible.


 

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