Gotcha! 11 Rules to Pull Off a Political Prank

A well-timed political hoax can expose corruption, force partisans to reexamine their positions, and make us all think twice about the way democracy works (or doesn't). And best of all, it can crack us up.

by Erik Sass | Reader's Digest

1. Star in a TV Show

Just before this year’s South Carolina primary, humorist Stephen Colbert announced his run for president of the United States of America of South Carolina. But here was his quandary: Elections are expensive and often need the help of money-rich political action committees (PACs). Yet by law, Super PACs must remain independent and not coordinate with political campaigns. So he created the Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert Super PAC—and then ceded control to Jon Stewart.

The two then coordinated strategy on Stewart’s The Daily Show, with Colbert repeating, “I cannot coordinate with you in any way” in gleeful tones as Stewart floated ideas on how they could coordinate with each other. His point regarding collusion between Super PACs and campaigns made, Colbert dropped out of the race. But when he asked to have his PAC back, Stewart declined. “Are you kidding me?” he said. “This thing is a pile of money, sitting on top of a heap of cash, sitting on top of a mountain of moola. And I’m going to spend it. But in a legal, responsible way. For example, I just bought a jaguar! And I’m going to buy that jaguar its own Jaguar and teach it to drive me around!”

2. Spoof a Respectable Target

With the Great Depression grinding on, American veterans of the First World War demanded and received early payment of a bonus as compensation for their efforts. To some Princeton students, it represented government handouts at their worst. So in response, they founded the Veterans of Future Wars, after the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). Their chief demand: payment before they served so they could enjoy the bonus with life and limb still intact. The “members” even had a salute: “hand outstretched, palm up, and expectant.” Eventually, some 50,000 college students signed up.

The commander of the real VFW raged against the “insolent puppies”: “They’ll never be veterans of a future war, for they are too yellow to go to war!” He was proved wrong, as many in the faux VFW ended up serving in the Second World War, as predicted; historians would later recognize these insolent puppies as part of the “Greatest Generation.”

3. Pick Up the Phone

When billionaire businessman and political kingmaker David Koch phoned Wisconsin governor Scott Walker in February 2011, the governor made sure to take the call. The reason for the impromptu chat: Walker’s controversial push to roll back public union bargaining rights in the state. During the conversation, Walker revealed that he’d considered planting “troublemakers” in the ranks of protestors to discredit the opposition but decided against it because it wouldn’t work. It was a bombshell that would reverberate in and out of the state. So how did everyone hear about it? Walker, it turns out, wasn’t talking to Koch. He was, in fact, gabbing with a Koch imposter—Ian Murphy, a blogger for the Internet site the Buffalo Beast. Oops.

4. Test Their Hearing

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was said to have theorized that no one who meets the president actually listens to him, as the person is too nervous thinking about what he will say himself. So while pressing the flesh at White House receptions, FDR would supposedly test this theory by murmuring to each guest in line, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” One astute listener assured the president, “I’m sure she had it coming to her.”

5. Hit the Bottom Line

When Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide in 2001, it rejected any claims of liability stemming from the latter’s 1984 chemical-leak disaster in Bhopal, India, which resulted in over 20,000 deaths. But three years later, a man representing himself as a Dow spokesman shocked financial markets by revealing to BBC World TV that the corporation was not only accepting responsibility for the accident but would also sell Union Carbide and use the proceeds to compensate victims and clean up the still-toxic site. Dow’s stock quickly plummeted $2 billion in value on one European exchange before the company could issue a denial.

So who was this mysterious spokesman? He was a creation of the Yes Men, a media-savvy group committed to taking on what they see as corporate greed and very good at bluffing their way onto televised news shows. In 2009, the Yes Men tried to distribute “B’eau Pal”—bottled water reportedly drawn from the disaster site’s groundwater—at Dow’s London headquarters. There were no takers.

6. Never Relent

Professional troublemaker Dick Tuck had a unique specialty: baiting Richard Nixon. During the 1950 California senatorial campaign, Tuck finagled a job organizing a rally for Nixon and booked a large auditorium, then didn’t publicize the event. The result—Nixon spoke to mostly empty seats. At other events, Tuck told bandleaders that Nixon’s favorite song was “Mack the Knife.” Thus, Nixon was ushered onstage to the lyrics: “Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear …” And during Nixon’s 1968 presidential run, it was reported that Tuck hired pregnant women to hold signs at a gathering that read “Nixon’s the One!” Although Nixon despised Tuck, in 1972, he hired his own dirty trickster, theorizing that his reelection campaign needed a “Dick Tuck capability.”

7. Run for Office

The notion of corporate personhood has been a boon for pranksters opposing corporate influence in politics. In 2010, Murray Hill, a Maryland PR firm that promotes progressive causes, announced that it was running as a candidate for Congress, citing a recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that corporations and unions have the same rights as (human) citizens in making political donations. So why not just “eliminate the middleman” and run for office “ourselves,” reasoned Murray Hill?

With the slogan “Corporations are people too!” Murray Hill promised a campaign that “puts people second, or even third ... for the best democracy money can buy.” Alas, the campaign was derailed by Maryland’s Board of Elections, on the grounds that the firm was “not a human being.”

8. Guilt Trip ’Em

In 1747, sensational court testimony published by news­papers and magazines in Great Britain and its American colonies gripped readers. It told the story of a Connecticut woman, Polly Baker, who had five children out of wedlock—all by different men—in an era when this was still a whipping offense. Polly’s defense: She was performing a public service. “Can it be a crime … to add to the number of the King’s Subjects, in a new country that really wants people?” she asked. Then Polly’s story took an even more scandalous turn: The man who fathered her first child became a well-known magistrate (whom she declined to name) who got off scot-free simply because he was a man. According to the story, one judge was so moved by her testimony, he married her the next day.

Since you’re reading an article about pranks, you might have guessed that there was no Polly Baker, no illegitimate children, and no love-struck judge. But there was a masterful hoax aimed at anyone who denied women equal treatment under the law—a favorite cause of the perpetrator, Benjamin Franklin.

9. Throw Money at It

Having gained admission under false pretenses, on August 24, 1967, Abbie Hoffman led his band of yippies to the visitors’ gallery of the New York Stock Exchange and dumped dollar bills over the balcony and onto the trading floor. They then watched gleefully as confusion and consternation ensued as stockbrokers ignored their trading to pocket the loot. On this day, the stock with the greatest gain belonged to the yippies.

10. Target Sacred Cows

The nerd world was up in arms in 1998 when a newsletter article reported that the Alabama state legislature, responding to a letter-writing campaign from a “traditional values group,” had voted to change pi—the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter—from 3.14 to plain old 3, thereby restoring it to its true, “biblical” value. One legislator explained, “The Bible very clearly says in I Kings 7:23 that the altar font of Solomon’s Temple was 10 cubits across and 30 cubits in diameter, and that it was round in compass. The Bible does not say that the font was 30-something cubits.”

The subtext of the prank (penned by physicist Mark Boslough) became evident when a “school board member” suggested that the secular value of pi should be taught in school alongside the “biblical” value—a swipe at those who want the biblical story of creation taught with the theory of evolution.

11. Get Thee to Radio Shack

In 2009, a prostitute, accompanied by a law student, walked into the offices of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) seeking advice on how to avoid getting nabbed for tax evasion, prostitution, and human smuggling. The ensuing conversation and staff suggestions resulted in ACORN losing most of its federal funding and dissolving in 2010. That’s because the “law student” in question was actually conservative provocateur James O’Keefe, the prostitute was a journalism student, and they captured everything on a hidden video camera.

So what was O’Keefe’s ax to grind with ACORN? The organization, which received federal funding, conducted get-out-the-vote drives mostly for the Democrats. While an investigation by California’s attorney general found that the videos were “severely edited” and cleared ACORN of wrongdoing, anyone willing to pretend to be a prostitute and her legal adviser just to nab a story gets to go down in practical joker history. 

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