Skaggs, Blags and Rags: Hoaxes and the Press

Filed under: Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Media Pranks, Publicity Stunts

Submitted by Mark Borkowski from Borkowski Blog. Mark is author of The Fame Formula: How Hollywood’s Fixers, Fakers and Star Makers Shaped the Publicity Industry

Skaggs, Blags and Rags: Hoaxes and the Press
October 16th, 2009

If you want proof that stunts are an art form, your best bet is to head down to the Tate Modern”™s Pop exhibition and take a long, hard look at the Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons exhibits. Here are two prime examples of early stops at one of the stations of the cross of Consumerism, part of its steady progress to becoming the prime 21st Century religion.

And proof is needed that stunts are an art form – they are making something of a comeback at the moment, but the latest examples – the Starsuckers film and Balloon Boy – are in need of a bit of spit and polish if they are to really shine.

Despite all this, there has been not one mention of the master of the hoax, Joey Skaggs, the master Culture Jammer whose hoaxes have always had a pertinent point to make. This is a pity because the Starsuckers team could learn a trick or two from him.


Take, for example, Skaggs”™s Celebrity Sperm Bank hoax from 1976. Skaggs organised a sperm bank auction in New York, then arranged for the sperm bank to be robbed with the semen supposedly being taken hostage. Or the Dog Meat Soup hoax from 1994, in which Skaggs portrayed Kim Yung Soo, a butcher who wanted to purchase dogs for food, to expose cultural intolerance and the media”™s tendency to overreact. These are the stunts of a master and they are works of art.

There has been considerable attention for the hoaxes at the heart of the new film Starsuckers – the film”™s makers created a series of hoax stories about celebrities that they then pushed on the tabloids. The aim was to point out how easily one could dupe journalists at the tabloids into taking patently ridiculous stories about celebrities and in this they succeeded. Reports of Amy Winehouse”™s beehive catching fire, Avril Lavigne falling asleep in a nightclub and Russell Brand”™s secret childhood desire to be a banker all made the tabloids – and some made it round the world.

But filmmakers”™ aim, which was to expose how the whole of the news industry is running stories without checking their facts, has not been achieved. This was not a sublime act of Culture Jamming – celebrity journalism and hard news are quite different animals (most of the time at least) and the hoax story they tried to push on the media that came closest to qualifying as real news, in which G20 protestors were apparently planning to dump tonnes of sugar on Alan Sugar”™s drive, was not picked up.

Telling everybody that it”™s easy to pass off nonsense about celebrities to the papers is hardly news in itself – most reporting of the lives of celebrities verges on the nonsensical as it is and most people know this and don”™t care, so far gone is their addiction to celebrity soap. The team behind Starsuckers are going to have to work harder if they are to achieve what they want.

Balloon Boy is another matter again. A family in Colorado claimed that they thought their son had been carried off by a weather balloon – he was found “hiding” in the attic after an expensive two hour cross country chase in full view of the world”™s media. I suspect that this was a stunt by a publicity-hungry family of stormchasers keen to further promote themselves after appearing on American Wife Swap. I also suspect that the only reason that the police aren”™t treating this as a hoax is to save face.

None of this has stopped a full-scale media hoo-ha and #balloon boy trending on Twitter. There”™s been reams of analysis in the medi and newscasters claiming they”™d burst into tears as a result, followed by a backlash after the six year old boy was found in the attic at home. As my pal Mark Solomons says: “He”™s a falcon liar, that”™s what he is. The father put the con in Falcon. It”™s like the Bart-Simpson-down-the-well episode. If the balloon had been up any longer, they could have had Sting do a charity record.”

We know that the media are willing consumers of all kinds of storytelling, but it would be good to see more artfulness and careful thought going into any future hoaxes. More Skaggs less blags, perhaps?