Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: A Korean company solicited American dog shelters for excess dogs to turn into soup.
Example: [Letter from Kea So Joo, Inc, 1994]
Origins: The letter quoted above raised a media firestorm in 1994. Fifteen hundred such missives were received by animal shelters across the U.S.A. Though some recipients saw it for the hoax it was, others immediately hit the panic button and summoned the media to decry such a horrid proposition. Imagine wanting to eat dog! Imagine approaching American animal shelters with such a slimy deal! Never mind that in 1992,
Shelter workers and animal rights groups were appalled. The media had a field day. And the greater the outcry, the more all of them did the work of a prankster extraordinaire for him.
Kea So Joo (Korean for "dog meat soup") wasn't a real company. Its only real-life manifestations were letterhead, a P.O. box, and a phone number. The idea for the sting came from Joey Skaggs, a man who has been the bane of the media for thirty years.
Skaggs sees himself as a performance artist on a mission. Where others use canvas and paint, he uses telephones and fax machines. His medium of choice is the imaginative prank. His messages often get lost in the fallout over his pranks , but they are always there. And you usually don't have to look very far for them.
For the dog project he set up a phone line and recorded an announcement in Korean and English, complete with dogs barking in the background. Two days after the letters were sent out, the line was swamped as Skaggs logged thousands of calls and taped messages from animal welfare officials, police, reporters, and various appalled cow-eating Americans. Animal lovers called him a filthy yellow devil and suggested Asians be deported, killed, or canned.
The phone was never answered by a person. All incoming calls were answered and recorded by a machine. That didn't stop various outraged parties from claiming they'd spoken to someone at the other end.
''I asked what I could do with dogs since I'm in Colorado and they're in New York," said Robin Duxbury, director of the Denver-based Animal Rights Mobilization. "He said, 'We have people that come pick them up from you, even in Colorado,''' said Duxbury, who then claimed to have hung up.
Dozens of newspapers and television stations carried staff-written and wire-service articles reporting investigations by concerned officials at animal welfare groups. One article noted a possible link between the letter and the disappearance of large dogs in upstate
After the furor had been hullabalooed
Skaggs believed the American public, with its own prejudices regarding which animals it's okay to consume, would go bonkers when confronted with the dog-meat proposal — and he was right. Animal rights groups and public officials took the story completely out of his hands — in the process, he believes, exposing their own racism and cultural bigotry. One of the messages of the prank, Skaggs maintains, was "We are culturally intolerant. It was about prejudice, as illustrated in the letters, faxes and calls I received."
Dog meat is indeed consumed in many Asian countries, a fact that horrifies Americans. Americans have no qualms about eating beef, even though cows are sacred in some religions, and the eating of cows in those countries would be greeted with as much enthusiasm as dog-eating would be here. But dog meat is officially banned in Korea, in part because of foreign pressure. If India tried to pressure us to give up hamburgers, though, we'd be outraged.
This was far from the first hoax perpetrated by Skaggs. He is the master, and his
No one who fails to do his research is safe from Skaggs, as those of the media who skip this step yet look to feature him in segments about hoaxes find out. In 1988 Entertainment Tonight wanted to interview him for such a piece. Skaggs sent an imposter in his place, and only after the interview aired on
His earliest stunt dates back to 1966 when he (and a few friends — he's not that strong) took a
Growing increasingly annoyed by the tourist buses that would cruise through the East Village gawking at the long-haired hippies, Skaggs decided turnabout was fair play. In 1968, he filled a Greyhound bus with aging hippies and took them on a tour of Queens, ostensibly to take photos of life in Squaresville.
Since those early days, he has turned up as a psychic attorney ("Why deal with the legal system without knowing the outcome beforehand? Let me tell you whether to sue or settle, if you'll win or lose."), a doctor who treats baldness by transplanting scalps from cadavers (Hair Today Ltd.), and the proprietor of a canine brothel for sexually deprived pets (the Cathouse for Dogs). As "Giuseppe Scaggoli," Skaggs advertised the opening of a celebrity sperm bank. Hoax or not, the number given out received calls from across the country from women who were willing to bid on Bob Dylan's, Mick Jagger's and Paul McCartney's semen.
He hung a fifty-foot bra on Wall Street. He has promoted fish-tank condominiums, replete with living rooms, bathrooms,and kitchens for "upwardly mobile guppies." (That last one backfired slightly — all the media attention gained by this prank prompted Neiman Marcus to offer $5,000 fish condos in its 1996 Christmas Book catalog. There were four different units, sold individually: a guppy-sized living room, a cozy little kitchen, a parlor and a bedroom — all appointed with furniture, fixtures, and even decorations such as framed portraits of cats.)
His 1981 cockroach pill hoax was classic. Posing as "world-famous entomologist
1992 found "the Rev. Anthony Joseph" pedaling a mobile confessional booth attached to a bicycle outside the Democratic National Convention in
And then there was the Crusade for Sidewalk Etiquette, a proposal which would have banned short people from carrying umbrellas and required fat people to walk single file and wear neutral-coloured clothing.
In 1992, "Dr." Joseph Skaggs booked a booth at a huge Toronto computer show to showcase his exciting new product, SEXONIC. The world's first sexual virtual reality program was touted as capable of "translating individual fantasies into a stunning approximation of reality" to "enable our clients to experience sublime pinnacles of delight that most people only dream of." The demonstration, of course, did not come off — Canadian customs officials supposedly seized the non-existent hardware and software at the border, claiming SEXONIC was morally offensive to Canadians.
No discussion of Skagg's tricksterism would be complete without a mention of the Solomon Project, an amazing but thoroughly fake computer program that could review a court case, apply the law, and spit out a ruling. The promise of an impartial electronic contraption that would remove human foibles from the judicial system proved irresistible to a world bone-tired of the O.J. case. CNN sent a camera crew to interview
Why does he do it, you ask? "My message exists on different levels," says Skaggs. "Besides trying to point out the irresponsibility of journalists, I'm also seeking to show the public's gullibility. Too many people are always looking for something outside themselves to take care of them rather than looking at themselves to address the problem. They tend to believe everything they read. It was sad to get calls from people with illnesses who were so desperate they were willing to take roach pills. Some were disappointed when I told them there were no such miracle pills. With others, you could see that a bell went off and they might be more cautious in the future. I'd like to think so, anyway."
"I let the media go with it; I judge success by how many people I'm able to reach with the message." And the message? "Question authority in all its shapes and forms. Don't suspend critical thinking for wishful thinking."
Skaggs sees his role as that of the archetypal trickster, a character found in the literature and mythology of most cultures, whose role is to jar his fellows out of the workaday rut of their routines that includes accepting "news" as gospel. He speaks seriously about his pranks, describing their function, at best, as serving to raise the consciousness of those who are "sleepwalking on automatic pilot."
Skaggs makes the point that if he can con the media as one lone activist with a fax machine, perhaps readers and viewers can learn to be a bit skeptical of news orchestrated by vast government, political, and business empires.
Barbara "kvetch as kvetch can" Mikkelson
Last updated: 28 May 2007
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