Filed under: Creative Activism, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Parody, Pranksters
Emerson Dameron chats with Cards Against Humanity’s Max Temkin:
Like numerous other small businesspeople, the braintrust behind the controversial party game Cards Against Humanity ran a money-saving special on “Black Friday,” the designated consumer orgy following Thanksgiving.
First, the company pulled its flagship game offline for the day, leaving any prospective buyers with plumper wallets. In case anyone remained dead set on exchanging scratch for CAH merch, it introduced an exclusive new item: the Box of Bullshit. It sold out within hours, despite the fact that it was, as its creators explained repeatedly throughout the day, precisely as advertised.
I checked in with Max Temkin, a Chicago-based designer and the most high-profile member of the Cards Against Humanity team, to see how it went.
How did you hatch the idea for the Box of Bullshit?
We all hate “Black Friday” and the ensuing media frenzy around it, which is a problem for us because holiday sales are pretty important for our company. I’ve always loved the Black Friday culture jamming that happens, like people who run up to a Best Buy moments before it opens and U-lock the doors shut. So it just seemed right for us to parody black friday by taking part in it in completely the wrong way.
It’s our version of that kind of culture jamming – become the thing we hate and pushing it to the point of absurdity, like Stephen Colbert has done so well with his character.
What was the process of acquiring and shipping it?
We worked with our incredible printing company AdMagic and found a cattle ranch in Texas that sold bull turds. We worked with a really nice rancher named Amy. Emily (our designer) and I worked on the packaging for several weeks and went through several iterations. Eventually we settled on a squat, foam-lined chipboard box with matte black that kind of plays on the idea of a jewelry box.
3. Were you surprised that so many people were reluctant to take you at your word?
Yeah, we planned for a lot of contingencies. But the one thing we never thought of was that people would refuse to believe that it was bullshit. We were literally so clear. Our FAQ said, “Are you selling any of your normal products today?” No. “Is this actually poop?” Yes. “Is it also something that’s not poop?” No. “Can I return it when I realize that it’s actually just poop?” No.
This reminds me a bit of the sort of stunt Abbie Hoffman might pull. Are there any great mischief-makers who inspire your projects?
I can’t speak for the rest of the guys, but Abbie Hoffman is a hero of mine. I read Steal This Book in college and it became a real template for me. He wrote, “Usually when you ask somebody in college why they are there, they’ll tell you it’s to get an education. The truth of it is, they are there to get the degree so that they can get ahead in the rat race. Too many college radicals are two-timing punks. The only reason you should be in college is to destroy it.” Shortly after that my friends and I took over the student government and turned it on the administration – we instituted gender-neutral housing, created a student advocate program for people who got busted by campus security, and used the resources of the school to organize big public games like Humans vs. Zombies, and snowball fights. In terms of other mischief-makers that we take inspiration from, our community manager Jenn asked me to cite the Marauders from Hogwarts. George Carlin had a huge influence on us growing up. Lately I’ve been reading a lot about Del Close and Adam McKay the early days of Chicago improv, and the craziness that those guys got into is just incredible.
What did we learn from this, aside from the fact that a certain number of people will take a perceived bargain on anything?
Well the thing we knew going in is that there’s really no protesting capitalism. There’s nothing you can say about capitalism that it won’t subsume and sell back to you. So the really radical thing for us isn’t just to complain about Black Friday, but to become the worst version of it and push it to a point of parody.
It’s interesting seeing the media of the prank play itself out. The attitude of the reporting seems to be, “How cynical, I guess this proves that people will buy anything.” But I never saw it that way – I always see these pranks as a kind of improv where the public is our scene partner. We’re not tricking them into buying bullshit – they’re willingly performing their part and helping us make these crazy shenanigans. What’s interesting is that the media seems to have a total blind spot for the value of just doing something to be funny, or make a good story – they just praise it or decry it as more advertising. But that’s okay, too. Like Hoffman said, “The first duty of a revolutionary is to get away with it.”
Emerson Dameron is a writer, storyteller, and humorist searching for signs of mischief in a world plastered with ads.