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Justin Jacoby Smith, Red Pepper

Dow Chemical apologizes for Bhopal

Contributed by

When: December 3, 2004
Where: BBC, broadcast worldwide

On the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, when an industrial gas leak killed thousands of people, a spokesperson for the company responsible appeared live on BBC World News and announces the impossible: Dow accepted full responsibility for the Bhopal disaster, and had created a $12 billion dollar plan to compensate the victims and clean up the site.

When the broadcast ended, the BBC studio technician was beaming. “What a nice thing to announce,” she said.

“I wouldn’t work for Dow if I didn’t believe in it,” he replied. He wasn’t lying, but he didn’t work for Dow either. In the next hour before the hoax was revealed, Dow’s stock temporarily lost billions of dollars.

Red-faced, the BBC chalked it up to an “elaborate hoax,” serving their need to cover up the truth: the cause of the hoax was almost too simple to believe: it all came down to a research error.

On November 29, 2004, an email from a BBC researcher came in to The network was looking for a Dow representative to discuss the company’s position on the 1984 Bhopal tragedy. (The DowEthics website had been set up two years earlier by the Yes Men for a different action, so the email was totally unexpected.)

Since the Yes Men couldn’t afford to go to London with their pathetic American dollars, they asked to be booked into a studio in Paris, where Andy was living. No problem. Mr. Jude (patron saint of the impossible) Finisterra (earth’s end) became Dow’s official spokesperson.

What to say? We settled on the impossible: Jude would announce a radical new direction for the company, one in which Dow would take full responsibility for the disaster. We would lay out a straightforward ethical path for Dow to follow to compensate the victims, clean up the plant site, and otherwise help make amends for one of the worst industrial disasters in history. It would be impossible for Dow not to react in an embarrassing way, which would generate tons of press and needed attention to the disaster see PRINCIPLE: Put your target in a decision dilemma.

After the announcement was made, the Yes Men helped Dow express itself more fully by mailing out a more formal retraction: “Dow’s sole and unique responsibility is to its shareholders, and Dow CANNOT do anything that goes against its bottom line unless forced to by law.” For a while, this statement — as picked up by Men’s News Daily, a reactionary drivel bucket that didn’t realize that the news release was also fake, and didn’t object to what it said — became the top story on Google News.

The action put Bhopal and Dow front and center in the U.S. news on the twentieth anniversary of the disaster. And it forced Dow to show, by its curt refusal to do anything proactive, just what “corporate social responsibility” really means.

Why it worked

This action got massive coverage in the United States, where most Dow shareholders live. It reminded folks of the unfinished business in Bhopal, and let people know that Dow is the company that needs to be held accountable.

Key Tactic at work

Identity correction

As fake Dow representative Jude Finisterra said in the interview, this was “the first time in history that a publicly owned company went against their bottom line simply because it was the right thing to do.” And it was, of course, too good to be true: Dow quickly made clear that it would not do the right thing… simply because it went against their bottom line.

Key Principle at work

Put your target in a decision dilemma

By announcing on live television that Dow was going to clean up the mess in Bhopal, the action forced Dow to respond. Any move they could make would make them look bad and draw further attention to their inaction on the issue.

Take leadership from the most impacted

Figuring out what Dow should say on the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal disaster proved to be easy: the work was already done by Bhopal activists, who had very specific demands, clearly articulated on their website. It was a simple matter of putting those words in Dow’s mouth.

Make the invisible visible

When Dow’s stock fell because the market thought the company did a good deed for the Bhopal victims, it revealed the callousness of the market in an almost clinical way.

Mike Bonanno (né Igor Vamos) is a guy from Troy, New York, who spent his formative post-childhood years making mischief. Mike once purchased hundreds of talking GI Joe and Barbie dolls, switched out their voice boxes, and created a media firestorm that had God-fearing Americans up in arms about the shadowy “Barbie Liberation Front.” This escapade caught the attention of lazy queer hackers like Bichlbaum, and together they formed the Yes Men. When not involved in tomfoolery, Bonanno is also a professor of media art at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, with a Scottish wife and two babies.

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