Exclusive: Inside the Mellow Pages/Exxon Mobil stunt

mellow pages exxon door

When rebranding goes wrong. Photo by David Colon

The Brooklyn and internet literary scene was recently suckered (including Brokelyn) by a strange prank by a small member-supported library operating out of Bushwick. Mellow Pages Library claimed it had been offered a $50,000, no-strings-attached sponsorship from Exxon Mobil. So they turned to their members, and the internet as a whole, to ask whether they could ethically take Big Oil money in an attempt to keep the library from shutting down.

It seemed improbable, and it turned out it was: Exxon told the International Business Times yesterday that they’d never heard of Mellow Pages and certainly didn’t offer them money. The library is no stranger to to weird pranks: In June, they claimed Kanye West was shooting a video in the space, and dozens of people showed up to take part.

In an interview with Brokelyn, Perkins admitted that the two were behind the stunt, hereby known as #mellowghazi, but defended it as a performance art piece and an attempt to find a deep-pocketed donor to keep the library alive.

Sitting in the otherwise empty library last night, Perkins explained that he and Nelson dreamed up the bizarre stunt as a Hail Mary way to save the library from closing. They hoped that a third party would swoop in and offer money to prevent a potential sponsorship from Big Oil. If no philanthropic angel comes through in the next few weeks, the library will close after February.

“We did it for the survival of the library,” Perkins said. “But we’re OK with the reality of the situation, that people will hate us now.”

The two saw it as more of a performance piece than a prank or a stunt, Perkins said, explaining that “everything after the email to members, the discussion everyone had and that we had with members, was real. We were all part of the performance, including me and Matt.”

“Our options were becoming so limited that this was one of the only cards we had left to play,” Perkins said. So the two sent the email to their members saying they’d been approached by Exxon.

Perkins compared it to a rolling work of fiction that everyone was a part of. He insisted throughout the interview that the conversation about selling out, independence and corporate influence was a good and necessary one to have.

At the very least, they seem to have accomplished the part of their performance piece to get people to talk about selling out and artistic integrity. Here at Brokelyn we lauded their decision to not take the money. At The Awl, writer Elizabeth Stevens compared their plight to Jim Henson’s efforts making commercials for corporate America, and the New York Observer, called their situation ”a sad story, but all too frequent in the small, non-profit business world.” But by causing the discussion in this manner, did they sell out their own members?

Perkins claimed that despite offers of smaller donations coming in from members, they didn’t take any of them, and that the goal always remained snaring a deep-pocketed donor.

“We had no intention of capitalizing on this, and there’s been no material gain,” Perkins said. As for the future of the library, he didn’t see how the stunt could have an effect on it, negative or positive. “We’re still fucked, we’re still in the same position we were when we started,” he said.

Having previously hosted a fundraiser for them, Brokelyn isn’t too thrilled to be hoisted on their oil rig of shame. But if there’s any lesson to take away from this, it’s that librarians, with their tortoise shell glasses and air of decorum, clearly can’t be trusted. They’re forever shushing us because we’re interrupting their attempts to think up of fanciful new scams to run on us. So perhaps think twice before supporting your local library.

Also, this is as good a time as any to announce that, thanks to generous underwriting by our new corporate sponsor, Halliburton, this site is changing its name to Hallibroketon. With Halliburton, a company with a sterling record on the environment, labor relations and war profiteering, we predict we can further our goal of giving you the best ways to live big on small change. Tip number one: know the vice president.

24 Comment

  • Well, if you’re going to go out, you might as well piss off or alienate everyone that had faith in you while you do it.

  • I think the worst part about this is that Matt and Jacob claimed that they opened up the discussion with their members as an act of transparency, when the stunt was in fact the opposite of transparent.

  • I like the moral compass here, where they decided it would be wrong to take small donations from this stunt, given the false pretenses, but it’s totally ok to fleece people/corporations with deep pockets.

  • Last ditch effort, huh? Why didn’t they just publicize the truth that they were going to have to close?

    • um, they did when they did the Indiegogo campaign.

      • That’s true. But if they had sent out press releases saying they were closing on February X, it would have been just as likely to attract an 11th hour daddy warbucks, wouldn’t it?

  • What is wrong with you people? This is GREAT.

    • What makes it great? I am genuinely curious.

      • Why is an upside down urinal great? I’m curious. It makes me laugh. Laughing is good.

        http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3671180/Duchamps-Fountain-The-practical-joke-that-launched-an-artistic-revolution.html

      • They opened up a debate about a very real issue – whether non-profits and the arts should get money from larger corporations, the government, etc – to an entire community of people. Then they had it published in fanzine, so that debate was further brought up by people outside of just the Mellow Pages Community. Then by “turning down” the money, they were lauded by multiple publications and their community — the same community that refuses to help fund the independent library that they seem to enjoy being a part of ( this isn’t entirely true, i know a lot of people who participated in the conversation have given money to Mellow Pages). I don’t understand why people are upset. Because a couple of writers are creatively trying to keep their library afloat? Because Exxon didn’t offer to give them money?

        • Can’t we just reuse the Diane in 7A thinkpieces from last year to address these questions?

  • This situation reminds me of “I’m Still Here.” When your intended audience isn’t in on the joke, they feel like they’ve been duped.

    I WOULD respect this as an artistic expression (art should offend and piss people off), but the motive here was not to create art. The motive was to make money to save their library, which is great, I wish that Mellow Pages could continue. The bad PR move here was allowing themselves to be lauded as incorruptible heros who are too punk rock to take corporate money… in order to trick someone into giving them corporate money. Murky waters.

  • This was not “performance art” — it was a cheap prank that these two played on their own supporters. As time should tell, the real lesson to be learned here is that by alienating your own supporters and members, and playing a cheap prank on them, these two will find it less easy to find support in their future endeavors. This has been a waste of time and is neither provocative or profound, but rather childish and disrespectful of people’s time and energy.

  • Have they tried registering as a non-profit? Have they formed a board of literary people in Brooklyn who will go to bat for them and help bring money in? Have they applied for the numerous stipends and grants that are available for literary endeavors like Mellow Pages in NY state? Is taking money from dead rich folk who set up trusts less honorable and punk then digging into your broke friends’ pockets?

    If they put half as much effort actually trying to raise money by the people who want to give them money as they do attempting backwards publicity stunts, they’d probably be in less bad shape. Keeping non-profit spaces open is a blood-draining hustle, but there are tried-and-true ways to keep it going. Get off your ass and make it happen.

  • In other words: To pretend to avoid selling out, they sold out.

  • Gentlemen, I am an established social engineering consultant. Had you only reached out to me, this would have taken a much more positive turn. It’s not too late. Give me a ring, and I can build you the best confidence scheme this side of the Mississippi.

  • I find it hard to believe that 90% of the people involved in the conversation we created had the opinion that we should take the money. That is valuable information, as I understand that position in full now. I also understand feelings of contempt and anger. The money was never real, sure, but it could have been, and that’s what’s important about the performance: if the money had never been real, the conversation never would have been real. Hatred seems like an easy performance in itself. It allows one to overlook the meaning of such an act. For some, contempt IS the meaning of this discussion. But is it productive? Can we now develop a ‘scale of badness’ which holds accepting money from one of the worst companies on the planet as ‘less bad’ in comparison to creating a conversation about such a scenario? Still, we’d like to think positing meanings defeats the point of the performance. You are all entitled to your own. Thanks for joining the conversation.

  • “But we’re OK with the reality of the situation…” – Reality is the last concept in this world that this group is okay with.