The story of how mischief-makers hope to change the world one prank at a time.
Self-proclaimed prankster McLeod (Communication Studies/Univ. of Iowa; Freedom of Expression: Resistance and Repression in the Age of Intellectual Property, 2007, etc.) defines pranks as “playful critiques performed within the public sphere and amplified by media.” Pranksters, he asserts, “try to spark important debates and, in some instances, provoke social change.” That was the author’s aim when he trademarked the phrase “freedom of expression” and threatened to sue AT&T for using it without his permission. The media picked up the “serious joke,” and McLeod was satisfied that the “fake lawsuit certainly got people talking” about the meaning of free speech. The author distinguishes pranks, intended to serve as political barbs, from hoaxes, whose “goal is to make others look foolish or to seek fame,” and cons, in which criminals dupe innocent people. Although he asserts that “hoaxes tell us much about the societies that embrace them,” they don’t spark debates or serve as critiques. However, including hoaxes, criminal con artists and conspiracy theorists dilutes McLeod’s argument about the impact of pranks. In 1835, for example, P.T. Barnum’s promotion of 80-year-old former slave Joice Heth as George Washington’s devoted 161-year-old nurse drew large audiences eager to see “this renowned relic of the olden times.” Barnum’s hoax, though, was aimed at nothing else but making money. McLeod supports his analysis more strongly when he turns to the 1960s, which “exploded with the kinds of pranks and provocations that challenged social conventions” and urged audiences to question what the media told them. Performance art, street theater and the exuberant antics of the yippies characterized leftist critiques. A few pranks emerged from the right: The author tells of a prankster who, frustrated by political correctness, staged a public objection to Lucky Charms cereal on the grounds that the leprechaun stereotyped Irish people.
McLeod’s renditions of his own pranks bring sparkle and humor to the serious message of his book.