On Tuesday morning, Earther got a press release purporting to be from financial services giant Vanguard. The press release touted a new fossil-fuel-free portfolio it called “Vanguardians of the Galaxy” for “young investors.” A few hours later, another press release showed up claiming to be from Marvel saying the Vanguard announcement would “mislead customers into believing they would make their investment products ‘real zero’ and ‘Paris-compliant.’ This copyright-infringing publicity stunt defies reality, as Vanguard neither shares our environmental stewardship standards nor represents the spirit of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).”
The dueling press releases rippled through Twitter with people eager to see the two corporate titans go to the mat over greenwashing. Sadly, though, the whole thing was a ruse to highlight how Vanguard, one of the largest investment firms on Earth, is more akin to Thanos than the Avengers when it comes to climate change.
It’s easy to see the appeal of the faux Vanguard release. The email was filled with groan-worthy puns and plays on words one might expect from a huge, stodgy company trying to seem hip and cool. And it would be legitimate news that represents a huge change of course for Vanguard.
Even though the actual company says it cares “deeply” about climate change, its assets are still entrenched in fossil fuels. There are few signs that they’re looking to get out anytime soon. An analysis by think tank Universal Owner found the firm has just one employee for every 300 of its portfolio companies working on figuring out how to disentangle them from fossil fuels. The group also found that Vanguard directs just 0.1% of its assets under management to environmentally friendly funds.
In the 2018 proxy season for shareholders—which Vanguard is in many companies—the investment firm voted for climate resolutions a measly 12% of the time. (The company said it supported 43% of the climate resolutions it voted on in the first half of this year, which is still not exactly leading the way on climate in the boardroom.) In this light, Vanguard offering a boutique Marvel-themed fund to invest in anything but fossil fuels might be cringe, but it would also be a sign that the company is changing its tune.
The press release was covered seriously by at least one outlet. Responsible Investor actually seemed to publish the Vanguard news on Tuesday, though it has since taken down the post.
The Marvel and Disney press releases were equally irresistible. Here was a company worth billions going after a company worth trillions for greenwashing. “Most notable is the use of Groot (who is a tree) to represent financial resources that destroy trees, and Rocket (a raccoon) co-opted into a financial war whose collateral damage includes woodland creatures suffering as their habitats warm,” one of the more incredible lines in the Marvel release reads.
The illusion, though, quickly unraveled with a little reporting. The press contact listed at the bottom of the Vanguard release, “Conner Lavigne,” had no information available online; he had a voicemail set up at the listed number, but his email bounced back. Both the websites hosting the press releases (investor-vanguard.com and news-marvel.com) had been registered only days earlier. Stanley Goodwin, the purported new head of the “Sustainable Investments division” listed in the Vanguard release, had a LinkedIn with very legit-seeming credentials, including a stint at the nonprofit Ceres, which advocates for sustainability with investors and financiers. But the photo of Goodwin matched stock photos found elsewhere online. When a harried press person reached via Vanguard’s main media line told me the release was fake, I knew the jig was up.
“I’m relieved you sniffed it out,” said “Conner,” whose real name is Keil Troisi, when I finally got him on the phone. Troisi is a member of the Yes Men, an activist group known for pulling elaborate pranks to highlight corporate failings. They’ve mocked Total with a fake press event, and their last big climate stunt was sending out a fake letter from BlackRock CEO Larry Fink in 2019 stating that the company would make all their investors align with the goals of the Paris Agreement. (Some outlets, including the Financial Times, wrote the letter up before realizing it was fake.) This Vanguard project was executed by a splinter Yes Men group Troisi said is called The Fixers, and was meant to shine some new light on less high-profile corporations that are responsible for fueling our planetary destruction.
“The Yes Men have done so many projects on fossil fuel companies, but they can’t do anything unless they’re financed,” he said. “The place we should be pushing is on big investment firms and financiers.”
The challenge, Troisi said, was how to make people care about the inner workings of financial firms—which have managed to get away with a lot of problematic investments without much scrutiny.
“Vanguard is totally opaque,” he said. “It’s super wonky and kind of dry, which is why they’re so good at getting away with so much. The challenge is, how do you make something so boring and complex seem dumb and fun and accessible? So I just imagined, what if they did a really poorly-executed PR push to tap into pop culture, except the pop culture is a little bit late, it’s not cutting-edge, but it’s also a play on their name?”
The Marvel response was an additional piece of flair meant to build another layer of satire onto the joke. “The [Vanguard announcement] is a little bit too boring to be interesting, but I liked the idea of a giant, influential company being offended by another, even bigger company,” Troisi said.
In addition to the press releases, The Fixers deployed a team of actors dressed as the Guardians of the Galaxy characters to stand in front of Vanguard’s headquarters, passing out brochures on the “Vanguardians” program. “It’s never too late to do good,” the brochure says, alongside details about the fake target-date fund.
That line is, perhaps, the seed of the genius in this prank: It’s almost imagining an alternate but not-unrealistic universe where Vanguard has made the decision to address criticisms from activists and start cleaning up its act, and where Marvel and Disney could really score points by putting their money where their mouth is by cleaning up their own houses. The ideas Troisi and his fellow Fixers dreamed up are not that far-fetched. These are all policies Vanguard could implement tomorrow—if it really cared about the future of the planet and its business.
“We were imagining the things they can and should do now,” Troisi said. “People want to be invested in a livable future, instead of just profiting off climate change. Even their competitors seem to be doing better than Vanguard, so we were like—we should at least pretend they’re doing something about climate change.”