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PRANKS 2 Excerpt: Billboard Liberation Front


JN: We collaborated with Ron English, whocame in from the east coast, to help celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of McDonalds. After some reflection, we realized that McDonald’s ultimate goal was ‘to serve man.’ We decided to do our part by putting up a billboard close to one of the highest-volume McDonalds retail stores in San Francisco.

People dressed up as ‘Ronald McDonald’ and showed up for our billboard ‘christening.’ Ron painted a backdrop of a fat, sardonic Ronald McDonald on the left, a giant alien on the right, a McDonald’s gateway arch in the middle, plus a caption, ‘To Serve Man.’ In the center we put a life-sized, live-action animatronic Ronald McDonald with a giant Big Mac in his hand, perpetually pushing it into the face of a corpulent eight-year-old kid kneeling in front, like he was taking Communion. There was a live-action tableau on the platform in front, with the billboard painting behind it.

Our press release reflected the fact that we’re supporting McDonalds in their 50-year effort to fatten up humanity, to better serve them to the aliens that are coming down!

V: Where do you get Ronald McDonald outfits?

JN: You can get a cheap red wig at a costume store. [Ed. note: Ron English and his wife Tarssa made Ronald costumes; BLF associates made their own, as well as three compelling ‘Hamburglars!’] Then you need white leggings and a red-and-yellow striped shirt. Our website might list stores where you can get these. I pre-wired the billboard, so all we had to do was put the dummy on a pre-set stand, plug him in, and he started punching the kid in the face with the hamburger.

V: What an idea–

JN: This was inspired by an old ‘Twilight Zone’ episode, ‘To Serve Man,’ [Episode 89] where these happy, friendly, aliens arrive on earth and start helping humanity. They have a book they’re reading, and a suspicious woman steals a copy and starts translating it. She finds out, to her horror, that it’s actually a cookbook! This McDonalds hit was in the middle of the day, on a Sunday afternoon–Memorial Day, actually–near Golden Gate Park. There were a million people in the street, cops driving around, bicycles and cars constantly going by. We had a van with Viacom stickers on the sides (which is the company that owns the billboard). Four of us were working on the board, and until we put up the animatronic figures, nobody looked askew at us. Our ground crew was watching to see if anybody was suspicious, and if it looked like they were getting on a cell phone to call the cops, they’d try and stop them.

The hit was in a Cala Foods parking lot, and one of our spotters was inside the store. He overheard one person go, ‘Hey, do you think that’s an ad for that movie Supersize Me?’ He automatically thought it was a legitimate image, even though it was the most bizarre image you could conceive of. As a distraction, we also had about thirty people dressed up as Ronald McDonald–their job was to show up at the last minute and take away attention from us when we were finishing up the billboard.

So we finished, got into our van and escaped a few blocks away. We parked, put on our Ronald McDonald costumes and returned to join the crowd of other Ronald McDonalds. By this time the police had come; the CALA Foods manager had called ’em. The police showed up and couldn’t do anything about the billboard. The Fire Department came later and took down the two manikins. But they’d already been up for several hours, and we’d filmed the whole thing. Then the police put the manikins in a paddy wagon, but they couldn’t close the rear doors, so their feet stuck out.

Basically, the cops came, arrested Ronald McDonald, threw him in a paddy wagon, we filmed this and it became part of the feature film Popaganda, a film documentary about Ron English–the finale of which is the BLF and Ron English doing this billboard hit. It couldn’t have worked out more beautifully–the cops arresting Ronald McDonald was beautiful! For my money, this was the greatest billboard hit I ever heard of, because it was the only one that used live animatronic figures; the only one where we had an entire street theater piece using thirty Ronald McDonalds on the ground, and the police who showed up were part of the event. And we left a good bottle of Scotch on this Ronald McDonald billboard for the sign workers.

Now for me, the best pranks are whimsical and humorous. You could spray-paint ‘Fuck McDonalds’ on a billboard, and people who are already Greenpeace or Adbusters or anti-globalist types will nod their heads in agreement. But that’s like preaching to the choir. It’s the people who don’t necessarily think that way that I want to get to. I like it when people pause and look, especially if it’s confusing. There’ll be that second when they’re thinking, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ . . . a little glitch that makes people think about where they are, and question what advertising really is.

There is a ubiquitous, non-stop barrage of corporate advertising and imagery everywhere we go, and we need to yell back at ’em! There are many groups around the country who alter billboards, and we’re all just telling people, ‘Advertising is a language. You’re being spoken to constantly through these ads. But you can talk back to them! You can make it a dialogue. And you don’t necessarily have to climb on up and alter a billboard. So every time you see a Nike swoosh logo, in your mind you can change it to a dildo or something you find humorous.’ So in our billboard alterations, we’re simply having a dialogue with the advertisers…

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