BETHLEHEM, Pennsylvania — What you’re about to read is the true story – told in full for the first time – of how an obscure video editor with the help of an absurdist comedian, a tattoo artist named Elvis and a town called Bethlehem trolled a presidential campaign and pulled off one of the most impressive pranks of the campaign season. The episode serves as a cautionary tale about the challenges campaigns can face when they choose to engage with the public online and of the new challenges of reporting in the Internet era.
Tucked away in a home office above his garage here this summer, Vic Berger, the freelance video editor with a sharp eye for absurd humor, tinkered with a short video of Republican presidential Jeb Bush that he had ripped from YouTube. The video he put online a few minutes later would change his life.
The video, which Bush’s campaign had posted as part of a series to make the candidate seem more relatable, showed the former Florida governor talking about his favorite Apple products. Berger thought Bush came across as awkward in the videos, and he isolated and manipulated a section to make it cringe-inducing. He posted on Vine, a video app, shared that on Twitter, and, just for fun, told his followers that if it received a million views, he’d get a Jeb Bush tattoo on his neck. He tagged Bush’s official Twitter account and some Bush campaign staffers so they would see it on their feeds.
To his shock, Jeb Bush posted a tweet of encouragement, saying he wanted to make Vic get the tattoo.
With Bush’s nudge, the video easily surpassed a million views. Berger claimed that he would proceed with the tattoo. Erin Gaetz, Bush’s director of digital video, egged him on and asked for proof.
Berger went on to post photos of himself inside a tattoo parlor allegedly getting the tattoo, which read “Jeb4Prez” across his neck.
When news outlets came calling, Berger told them the tattoo was real. A local television station in Bethlehem even visited the tattoo parlor and grilled the artist, Elvis Lewis, who said on camera that he had given Berger a tattoo on his neck and he showed them what he claimed was a check from Berger as evidence of the transaction.
“I did a neck tattoo,” Lewis told WFMZ in Bethlehem. “I tattooed the man. I received money for my services.”
Back on Twitter, an account claiming to be run by Berger’s father started sending messages to Bush and his campaign staff telling them that they had made a terrible mistake encouraging him. The man claimed that Berger had “undiagnosed issues” and that by pushing him to go through with it, he had lost his job and that his life was ruined. Berger himself began telling reporters that he no longer wanted to talk because he was repairing relations with his family after the episode.
Members of the Bush campaign immediately stopped engaging with Berger on Twitter. Had they actually provoked someone online who was crazy enough to do this? It was too hard to tell for sure, and they erred on the side of caution. Berger, who appeared online to be a rabid Bush fan, kept cutting videos of the candidate and posting them to his Vine, Twitter and Instagram accounts. He sent Bush’s aides creepy videos that appeared to show him following Bush around the campaign trail and watching him at events. Tim Miller, a spokesman for Bush’s campaign, declined to comment about the episode.
Many media outlets reported the story skeptically, but none truly got to the bottom of it. Time Magazine, the Huffington Post, MSNBC and others reported on the story. CNN featured Berger twice as a man who “claimed” to get a tattoo. A nation was left to wonder: Could it have been true?
It wasn’t true. Berger has no tattoo. But in this case the truth is almost as weird and entertaining.
One fact that was left underreported in much of the coverage was that Berger works as an editor on videos with Tim Heidecker, a comedian who co-stars on the Adult Swim program called “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” (Adult Swim and CNN are both owned by Turner Broadcasting.) That should’ve been a dead giveaway that it was all a hoax. But few noticed it.
Berger never had any intentions of getting a tattoo, he said, but when the Bush campaign engaged with him publicly, he decided to take the joke as far as possible.
“As more and more people kept contacting me, I decided to go with it,” Berger told CNN.
Once it reached a million loops, Berger took a friend with a camera to Steel City Tattoo, a parlor near his home, where tattoo artist Elvis Lewis sat him down in a chair and drew the tattoo on his neck with a Sharpie. But they shot a video that appeared to show Berger getting a real tattoo. For authenticity, Lewis actually penetrated his skin with the needle, but without ink. That’s how he was able to tell the reporter later that he had honestly “tattooed the man’s neck.”
Later, while brainstorming with Heidecker about how take the joke even further, they concocted the backstory about how they would portray Berger as a mentally fragile man obsessed with Bush who’s life was now destroyed by the new ink below his chin. To make it seem more authentic, they made it seem like he had been fired from his job at the Turkey Hill, a Pennsylvania dairy company. When The Daily Dot, a news website, called the Turkey Hill seeking comment, even the manager who answered played along with the joke.
“I refuse to confirm or deny anything,” a cheeky manager said, according to the Daily Dot.
As for the Twitter account claiming to be Berger’s father who told the Bush campaign about his “undiagnosed issues,” that was Heidecker himself.
“The confession is, that was me,” Heidecker said. “Adding those details meant texture. What I try to do a lot of the time is to make the jokes or pranks as four-dimensional as they can be. It’s a little dangerous and a little fun what you can do with a phone in your hand. I don’t think we caused any major damage or anything, but it’s disruptive, and I like anything that can be a little disruptive.”
A key part of their strategy relied on willfully misleading the media, which Berger did regularly. While some media outlets were rightfully skeptical, Berger said he was surprised at how easy it was to get his name in the news.
“If a sensational headline is out there people will click on it and people don’t care if it’s true or not. I was surprised there wasn’t more research done,” he said. It’s a little frightening.”
Over the past few months, Berger has continued to make political videos that who the presidential campaign in the creepy and weird light he says it deserves.
“I like to amplify what’s already there and focus on that,” Berger said of his offbeat style. “Like the weird facial expressions and the people behind them. I boil down the candidates almost to their essence, in a way. You can watch a five-minute video of mine and not learn anything about what their policy is. But I think you do get an understanding of what kind of person they might be.”