Sunday, May 15, 2011

On the Perils of Humorlessness

Sometimes, even when you might technically have a case, the smart thing to do is to STFU. This would have been the advice I’d have offered Peabody Coal had they asked me how to respond to a parodic “ad” for free inhalers for kids sickened by coal-related pollution, posted online by the Yes Men on their snarky and (of course) totally fake website,, and circulated widely via social media.

But, curiously enough, they didn’t ask me, and I’m pretty certain wouldn’t have listened if they had done so. No, humorless corporations whose record of poisoning adults and children alike is well-documented by folks like, say, the American Lung Association tend to have a little bit of an arrogant streak.

So when the Yes Men launched their phony inhaler campaign (“Baby’s First Inhaler: My First Breath,” “Batman: Breathe Deep with the Dark Knight,” “Diamond: Diamonds are an Asthmatic’s Best Friend,” etc.), Peabody decided to counter-attack. They trotted out their legal department and sent a cease and desist letter to the Yes Men, threatening DIRE CONSEQUENCES if the “ad” didn’t stop referring to Peabody within 24 hours. The Yes Men, of course, laughed at them, and posted their response for all to see. They have apparently seen the light, and have decided to “[change] every instance of the word ‘Peabody’ on to a rotating selection of the names of other large U.S. coal producers who, like Peabody, also need to be stopped from killing kids.” They did, however, seem contrite that they had “falsely suggest[ed] that Peabody cares about kids made sick by coal.” And, in a post-script, they suggest that they would be “grateful” if Peabody “would stop misquoting the [World Resources Institute] and issue a corrective statement within the next 24 hours.” Uh, Peabody think-tankers: that didn’t go well.

First off, as suggested above, the public is reminded of the fact that “clean coal technology” is little (if anything) more than a catch phrase trotted out by politicians (including candidate Obama) when they want to get votes in places like Kentucky and West Virginia. It has little if any present-tense resemblance to any universe actually inhabited by people. So whatever legal standing Peabody may have had pales in comparison to the presumably unwanted publicity about just how dangerous to the public health their industry actually is. I can certainly tell you that had they not responded to the Yes Men’s gag (which I had seen, smiled about, and pretty much forgotten), I wouldn’t have been prompted to dig up this neat little map compiled by the Clean Air Task Force, showing death and disease attributable to power plants.

I keep skirting the issue of whether Peabody actually has a legal case. That’s because this is iffy territory. They don’t (and they acknowledged that they don’t) have the right to shut down the website in question. They might have a copyright claim, if and only if they can demonstrate that reasonable people believed the gag to be, well, not a gag. I confess that the joke was not immediately obvious to me, although I did catch on before getting to the part about making inhalers “cool.” Part of the problem, of course, is that satire relies for its effect on some semblance of truth: this does, at first glance, look like the stupid PR campaign of some multi-billion dollar corporation.

This incident is both similar to and different from the furor over the most famous fake ad ever—or at least the first one I think of: National Lampoon’s 1972 spoof of a Volkswagen ad, showing a VW bug floating on a river and proclaiming “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today.” I still talk about this fake ad today, as an example of the ephemerality of satire. I tell students what the fake ad shows, acknowledge their blank stares, and then explain. Everyone in 1972 got the joke, but today’s undergraduates are unlikely to know either, let alone both, key ingredients to the humor: the Volkswagen ad campaign suggesting the beetle was so well-made it floats, and the circumstances surrounding the death of Mary Jo Kopechne on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts; Ms. Kopechne apparently drowned when a car driven by Senator Kennedy ended up in the river.

The gag, of course, was funny because it might well have been true. Subsequently, the fake ad may well have had the presumably unintended consequence of keeping Senator Kennedy from running for the presidency in 1976. By the time he actually tested those waters in 1980, he ran against a sitting President of his own party, and his primary campaign, inevitably negative about the incumbent, probably contributed to the electoral annihilation of Jimmy Carter in November (not that Ronald Reagan wouldn’t have won, anyway, but probably not quite so resoundingly). But one wonders what would have happened had Volkswagen (not Kennedy) not kept the story going by suing the National Lampoon for, you guessed it, copyright infringement. National Lampoon ultimately withdrew the ad (by razor blade, according to some accounts) from all unsold copies of the issue in question, destroyed the master, and issued the world’s greatest-ever retraction: “Even if Ted Kennedy had driven a Volkswagen he wouldn’t be President today.”

Apparently Volkswagen was getting irate letters from (stupid) customers, carrying on about how the ad is in bad taste (ya think?) and—here’s the important part—how they’re so shocked and outraged that they’ll never buy another VW. So whereas there is nothing at all defamatory to Volkswagen in the fake National Lampoon ad, it may have been that they made the right call in suing the magazine. Senator Kennedy, who obviously couldn’t have been pleased, didn’t sue, but he nonetheless suffered the consequences of the fact that VW’s suit kept the “ad,” and hence Chappaquiddick, in the public consciousness.

Peabody, on the other hand, really is being humiliated—rightly so, in my opinion, but that part doesn’t figure into this analysis—and they’ve apparently had a fair number of phone calls about the free inhalers, but they still would have been wise to let this one just fade out of the public consciousness. As I said earlier, I’d honestly forgotten about the fake ad already, and it first appeared… maybe a week ago? Not now. No, the smart guys at Peabody had to get all snotty and indignant. So I got reminded of their greed, their pomposity, and their total disregard for the health issues the fake ad highlights. And now… you’ve been reminded, too.

No comments: