By today, scores of Republican visitors and New Yorkers will have had a run in with a bunch of men and women dressed in tuxedos.
Some will immediately recognize the high-class sartorial - and satirical - group as Billionaires for Bush, a liberal protest group that shuns the typical tactic of pathos for irony. Others will get duped, think they have a common goal, only to find out that they couldn't be more wrong.
The group originally started as Billionaires for Bush (or Gore), an attempt to call to light the candidates' true loyalties. During Bush's presidency, the group decided to go solely after the incumbent, adding a bit of shtick into the traditionally angry protest scene.
From two chapters in January to over 70 chapters in August as the elections approach, the media message has helped cultivate a devoted following. It doesn't hurt that the group adopts the pomp, humor, and faux embellishment that are missing from most other protests.
Billionaires for Bush is an organization whose membership finds a dichotomy in multiple scenarios. They want to control their message, while letting the organization grow virally. They want their real views to be taken seriously, while their behavioral currency is satire. They want to stay in character to make a point, but often have to step out of it to defend their approach.
Protest groups are rarely given the organizational kudos they deserve. It takes an enormous amount of effort to organize so many people with different opinions under one structure. The only way to accomplish this is to agree upon one point and run with it.
The Billionaires' common link is the characters they've created for themselves: opulent, selfish, and representing the very worst of liberals' criticisms of Bush. They are pro-war - calling it "blood for oil," anti-environment, anti-labor, and pro-cronyism.
Andrew Boyd, one of the two salaried Billionaires for Bush who is dubbed "CEO & schmoozer-in-chief," points out the challenge of having a serious, well-defined strategy, while attempting to empower others to continue the Billionaire chain. If political activism has an organizational spectrum, the Billionaires are the antithesis of window-smashing anarchists.
For example, the organization has a 45 page PDF entitled "How to be a Billionaire" that it provides for new chapters. It has a very structured approach, providing talking points, such as, " Focus on corporate takeover of the government... Corporate takeover arguments resonate across the political spectrum, and constitute Billionaires' strongest message. Leave social and ideological issues behind. Corruption is a winning issue, corporate cronyism is the best cross-cutting critique of this administration. Hence we don't do much on gay marriage, reproductive rights, the moral issues behind Iraq war etc."
"When people join the Billionaires, they're often surprised how deep the planning goes," Boyd says. "But you don't go from two chapters to 70 without proper messaging."
The organization continues to grow and Boyd concedes that are some chapters that he's only vaguely knows about.
"We do active outreach through leads from people; such as if someone from New York knows someone in Ohio who is anti-Bush," Boyd says. "It's very viral."
Sometimes it's a deliberate proactive measure, such as analyzing where in the swing states the organization is weak.
They may create a chapter around an event based upon when the Republican machine is rolling into town. They look at people that signed up on the website and see if they want to combine to form an organization.
The website provides printable bumper stickers, signs, and decals with the Billionaires' logo, a red, white, and blue piggy bank with cash flowing out of its back. Additionally, individuals can purchase the two CDs they recorded, listen to radio ads, or watch videos.
"But there are a lot of wild chapters that hear about us, go to our website, and do actions," Boyd says. "There's chapters we can't even get in contact with."
Pamela Perd, director of PR, says that she hopes that new chapters adhere to the organization's appearance, messaging, and slogans. But she adds that the organization invites chapters to come up with new ideas.
"The Billionaires have spent plenty of time on our message," says Perd, whose media facing mission does not require her to have a Billionaire name or persona. "It a message that we are constantly visiting because the political climate keeps changing."
Boyd concedes that the only way the main organization can continue to ensure the message is adopted is to provide a best practices guide like the PDF it provides.
A worst-case scenario, where a renegade chapter might break the law or create a message anathema to the Billionaires' intent, has yet to occur. One of the unique bans, Boyd says, is that the group's status as a 527 prohibits it from engaging in "expressed advocacy." We can't say, "Vote for Bush." In that situation, Boyd reckons he would either try to talk to the group or try to cut them loose from the Billionaire team.
However, the Billionaires need to attract help for the crucial swing states where local media, like small talk radio shows and city dailies, constantly "discover" the group and cover the organization.
The articles, and there have been scores of them, all have the same sort of feel. It's a long narrative opening, where the writer pretends to also be taken for a ride, explaining literally the "pro-Bush" protestors in top hat and tuxedos. But, no! They're not pro-Bush. They're liberal street performers.
Whether or not one believes the media is skewed liberal, it is apparent that it enjoys cataloguing the duping of the public.
"We use corporate media as an ally," Boyd laughs, pointing out how that statement could be construed as out of or in character. "We do something, it gets media attention, people hear about it, and then they want to do something to."
Many of the articles about the group focus on the out-of-character aspects of the Billionaires. After all, the media needs to be in on the joke.
Perd says that when FoxNews.com reported on the protestors during the Democratic convention, reporter Peter Brownfeld called the Billionaires "a rare pro-Bush group" in a story datelined July 28.
The archived article on FoxNews.com reads, "A satirical 'pro-Bush' group." The dateline on that article is July 30.
The group asserts that Brownfield was confused, but Brownfield told PRWeek.com, via e-mail, "I can say, that as the author of the article, I was never confused about the intentions of the group. It was clearly, and hilariously, anti-Bush." He adds that if he did in fact write that "a rare pro-Bush group" it was his own satirical take on the matter.
The group can interact with the media on different levels.
Perd calls one of their tactics, the Trojan Pig, referring to their technique of using a malleable image that best fits the interview topic.
"A lot of times it's us [stepping] out of character, speaking to the media about our character, which I think the media really likes," Boyd says.
"Coming out of character really depends on who the audience is and the individual's role," Perd says, who as the PR head does not adopt a character.
"You ask the outlet to pay careful attention to your tone when you're out of character," Boyd says, referring to the act of taking off his top hat to complete the transformation.
When it comes to events, however, the group tries to remain in character at all times. At a Karl Rove speaking engagement, Boyd says, cops separated them from the obvious liberal protestors. This couldn't occur if the Billionaires mounted a passionate leftist appeal.
"There are a couple of situations, in a confrontational environment, where we might not want to get out of character, but do so," Boyd says.
One of the Billionaires for Bush's most highlighted media hits in the New York Times Magazine, reporter Jack Hitt documented Boyd stepping out of his Rich character.
A woman dug deep into empathy and accused the Billionaires of impugning the memory of the 9-11 victims, one of which was her cousin.
Hitt recorded Boyd literally announcing that he was coming out of character and saying, "I'm sorry for your loss."
Another Billionaire, "Prid Quo Pro," got into a passionate debate with her and at its termination, they actually hugged.
"In other instances, we deliberately deploy the character because we know we'll be asked to come out of character and speak as our own selves with our opinions in a direct way," Boyd says.
The perfect balance
It is this dichotomy that makes the messaging of the Billionaires incredibly challenging. Performance-wise, they need to finely straddle the line between being so over-the-top that everyone gets it, and being so subtle that no one gets it. They fail if they stray too far towards either of the extremes. If everyone gets the joke, there's no one to dupe, no way they can get ushered into the Republican sides of the protest, or no way an irony-deficient right-winger can ask for them to appear on their show. If no one gets it, then they've failed to show what they deem is the excesses, mendacity, and corporate tyranny of the Bush administration.
When they come out of character, it's either to compel people with their emotional beliefs or to tell the back story of the organization. This is what makes impassioned hoaxes so difficult. The Billionaires for Bush website, billionairesforbush.com, has, under its "About Us" section for categories: Our Story, Our Team, Seriously, and Links. By clicking on the first two, a reader gets the satire.
"Billionaires for Bush is a grassroots network of corporate lobbyists, decadent heiresses, Halliburton CEOs, and other winners under George W. Bush's economic policies."
By clicking on the last two, the reader gets the serious talk and links to other left-leaning publications.
Under Seriously, one reads, "Billionaires for Bush is a grassroots media campaign that is changing voters' minds in swing districts. We're using humor, street theater, and creative media to show how the Bush administration has favored the corporate elite at the expense of everyday Americans."
"It's a well conceived [message]; they obviously have some young, bright people behind them," says Tim O'Brien, a principal at O'Brien Communications.
"But it's the law of diminishing returns, O'Brien adds. "Once everyone gets the jokes, they move on."
The group, which expects to continue well past the election regardless of president, doesn't expect that people will move on.
If Bush wins, they'll keep fighting, and if Kerry wins, they'll feel empowered that they made a difference, Boyd says.