Guerilla theater, stunts and pranks make a mark on politics – Iowa Capital Dispatch

In 1967, activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin staged one of the greatest political pranks of all time when they entered the New York Stock Exchange and threw dollar bills to the traders on the floor.

Free money, seemingly from the heavens, sparked reactions. Some rushed for the bills. while others waved or shook their fists angrily at the agitators.

But the media picked up the stunt, elevating the Hoffman and Rubin — and the organization that they led, the Youth International Party (Yippies) — into media darlings.

Hoffman called the stunt “guerrilla theater” and later observed, “If you do not like the news, why not go out and make your own?”

Guerilla theater is a form of political protest, typically involving public stunts, satire and pranks. It has evolved in our time via social media but its methods date back to the 19th century.

In 1896, William Crush staged a spectacle to promote the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, crashing two 35-ton locomotives head-long into each other. He even erected a town, aptly named “Crush,” attracting 40,000 visitors on the day of the event — making Crush for a time the second-largest city in Texas.

When the engines collided, the boilers exploded, killing two spectators. A photographer hired to document the event lost an eye to a flying shard.

Crush was promptly fired. He was later rehired because news and photos of the event created a buzz for the company.

Thus, he affirmed the motto — “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” — associated with P.T. Barnum, the 19th century American showman and circus owner.

Like guerilla theater, some of the most successful publicity stunts combine marketing with politics.

On April 1, 1996, Taco Bell took out full-page advertisements in top newspapers, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and USA Today, announcing it had purchased the Liberty Bell.

Here are details and text of the ad, “Taco Bell Buys the Liberty Bell”:

“In an effort to help the national debt, Taco Bell is pleased to announce that we have agreed to purchase the Liberty Bell, one of our country’s most historic treasures. It will now be called the ‘Taco Liberty Bell’ and will still be accessible to the American public for viewing. While some may find this controversial, we hope our move will prompt other corporations to take similar action to do their part to reduce the country’s debt.”

You can anticipate new forms of guerrilla theater to infiltrate campaigns in the midterms and beyond.

Taco Bell headquarters, the National Park Service and Congressional staff offices received thousands of complaints, overlooking the “April Fool’s” aspect of the ruse.

Later that day, White House press secretary Mike McCurry got in on the joke, telling reporters, “We’ll be doing a series of these. Ford Motor Co. is joining today in an effort to refurbish the Lincoln Memorial. It will be the Lincoln Mercury Memorial.”

More than 1,000 print and broadcast outlets covered the Taco Bell story, generating free publicity worth the equivalent of $25 million.

In the digital age, guerilla theater spawned a new genre called prank advertising.

Guerilla theater goes to the movies

The method has crossed over to movie theaters. One of the most successful promoted a remake of the horror movie “Carrie” in a video on YouTube, viewed more than 75 million times.

Titled “Telekinetic Coffee Shop,” it shows a production company setting up a scene in which a man spills coffee on the laptop of an agitated woman with paranormal powers. As patrons order coffee, not realizing the prank, the woman thrusts out a palm, levitating the offending man up a wall to the ceiling. Her anger escalates as chairs and tables telekinetically move away from her. She screams. Wall hangings fall and books fly off shelves.

The video cuts to a blood-soaked image of the actor portraying “Carrie” with the closing credit: “In theaters October 18, 2013.”

Movies are fair game for guerrilla theater, as in Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2020 “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.”

Former President Donald Trump’s then personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, was depicted in an indiscreet encounter on a hotel bed with Borat’s daughter pretending to be a TV journalist.

We’ll skip the details, but you can read this to refresh your memory or even view the segment here.

Political stunts

Guerilla theater now uses social media to pull off political stunts and pranks.

Instead of protesting a Tulsa rally in 2020 by then incumbent candidate Donald Trump, TikTok users and K-pop fans used internet to feign interest in the event, requesting more than a million tickets. That prompted campaign officials to build an outdoor venue for the anticipated overflow crowd.

The building where the rally took place had seating capacity for 19,000 but only 6,200 attendees showed up.

After the election, the Trump campaign set up a hotline for people to report election fraud. Pranksters flooded the line with mocking calls about his losing to President Joe Biden.

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, has resorted on occasion to political stunts. In April she challenged progressive Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to a debate, using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

A month later in the presence of two Washington Post reporters, Greene followed Ocasio-Cortez out of the House chamber, shouting “Hey Alexandria!” and taunted her for support of far-left groups.

“You don’t care about the American people,” Greene shouted.

You can anticipate new forms of guerrilla theater to infiltrate campaigns in the midterms and beyond.

Ethics aside, as history has shown us, many of them will prove successful.



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