If there’s anything that the LulzSec and Anonymous hacking movements have taught us, it’s that no area of the internet is safe from subversion. This week, those groups’ spiritual brethren the Yes Men – a shadowy collective dedicated to making mock of big corporations – trained their sights on oil giant Shell with a sophisticated round of “adbusting”.
A tactic long favoured by anti-corporate campaigners, adbusting involves appropriating the marketing imagery of the target company and giving it a satirical spin, to reveal what the campaigners consider to be carefully concealed home truths about that company’s work.
In Shell’s case, the Yes Men set up a website with the URL arcticready.com, which looked to the unschooled visitor like a branch of Shell’s official website. The content gave the impression that Shell was running a social campaign to involve web users in its marketing plans. A gallery of still photographs similar to those used in existing Shell adverts had been appended with captions – in the correct, Shell-ad font, no less – that questioned the company’s environmental credentials. Each caption ended with Shell’s official tagline, “Let’s go.”
Examples included a still of an oilrig with an arctic background, complete with the caption: “Turn the power on, it’s time to melt some ice! Let’s go.” And a picture of several narwhals ploughing through the sea bore the text: “Narwhals are the unicorns of the ocean. We provide the rainbows via oil slicks. Let’s go.”
In a stroke, the Yes Men made it seem as though Shell’s non-existent, entirely fictional social campaign had backfired. In tandem, the Yes Men launched a Twitter page with the alias @ShellIsPrepared to make it look like the oil giant was losing its rag over the damaging captions. Panicked remarks such as “We’re working overtime to remove libelous [sic] ads” and “Please, please, please stop sharing inflammatory ads” emerged from the feed, which was kitted out with Shell’s trade dress and logo so that it resembled the company’s real Twitter page (@Shell). Predictably, the fake feed – which served as the Yes Men’s way of neutralising any retaliation – stoked web users’ curiosity over arcticready.com and drove them to check out the fake ads.
Part of the reason why the Yes Men’s adbust was so believable is because a real example of a large company launching a backfiring social media campaign presented itself earlier this year. In that case, McDonalds’ official Twitter feed floated out just two uses of the hashtag #McDStories, hoping to garner a wealth of positive feedback about consumers’ experiences of the burger chain. One of the two official tweets was:
Before long, though, satirical grassroots influences took hold, and deprecatory tweets using the hashtag began to filter out, such as:
Eventually there was a storm of negative messages piggybacking on the hashtag, and all McDonalds could do was bunker down and wait until said storm blew over. In that instance, the chain undoubtedly learned that web users will quickly counteract any agenda that a major corporation tries to set on a social network, unless it has established mutual goodwill.
The Shell case, though, is new, different and – for PR departments at leading firms – more than a little worrying. It has posed the problem that any well-known brand could be next on the list, and that the subversive activity will come right out of the blue.
So far, Shell has been tight-lipped on the matter. At the time of writing, it hasn’t updated its @Shell Twitter feed since Friday 13 July, and has released no statement that might clarify the hoax site’s irrelevance to its own activities. However, this is perhaps the correct approach to take, as any official acknowledgement of the Yes Men’s actions would serve to give them a victory.
Some examples of the hoax ads
Age of panic
Some of the Yes Men’s hoax tweets