Oobah Butler Reveals How Close He Came to Getting Sued Over His Amazon Film

Viewers in the U.S. can now watch his new doc, 'The Great Amazon Heist,' on VICE.
A man with blonde hair sits in front of a laptop and notepad
Photo: Still taken from 'The Great Amazon Heist'

For nearly a decade now, British arch prankster Oobah Butler has been making oddball films that toy with institutions, systems, and commonly held beliefs, to reveal the silliness and weirdness that often lurks beneath. His antics have seen him turn his own garden shed into the most highly rated restaurant in London, fake his way to the top of Paris Fashion Week, and send doubles of himself around the world for TV interviews and talks.


Last year, the peroxide provocateur filmed his most ambitious project yet, The Great Amazon Heist, in which he went undercover at the world’s biggest online retailer to reveal how it treats its workers and how easily its algorithms can be hacked. It isn’t a spoiler to reveal that at one point in the doc, he launches a urine-based energy drink that rapidly becomes one of the highest ranked beverages on Amazon’s marketplace.

Until now, the film was only available to those in the UK, but now people based in the U.S. can watch it on VICE.

We caught up with Oobah to find out what inspired him to take on the commerce giant, what he actually did with those bottles of piss, and how close he came to being sued by Mr Bezos.

VICE: Hey Oobah. Welcome back. So, where did the idea first come from to make the film?
Wanting to do something about Amazon was a pandemic thing. Just seeing how this gigantic company was growing so quickly and beginning to impact physical spaces like our homes, or the boxes outside everybody’s houses, or the shut shops on the high street that never came back because Amazon had vacuumed up their business. I’d also read the book Moneyland by Oliver Bullough about tax avoidance, and wanted to do something in my voice about that subject. So, it started in wanting to kind of get people to care about tax avoidance, particularly Amazon’s tax practices. Then my collaborator Stan Cross and I started working on a short together about that, and it eventually grew into this.


What’s the biggest epiphany you had about the company while making the film?
I suppose initially it was that I myself started the film as somebody who used Amazon all the time and ended it as somebody who no longer does. I didn’t think I’d be able to stop using it, but once I stopped, I realized that it wasn’t very hard. They’ve won an argument in our minds that—in spite of the bad stuff we hear about the company—there’s no alternative to using them, they’re a necessary evil. I’ve found that’s not true.

A second thing could be how old-fashioned and clumsy their platform is. It seems almost impossible to regulate, which I had fun with by having my nieces buy things from them—like knives or poison—that should be age verified; or selling their drivers’ piss on the platform as a drink. The funny thing about the piss drink is that it was initially in the ‘Refillable Pump Dispenser’ category, and Amazon’s algorithm moved it into drinks automatically, bypassing their food and drinks licensing. Then the executive team moved it into the drinks category I actually wanted after I sent them a few emails.

How close did you come to being sued out of existence by Jeff Bezos?
We had some very scary moments leading up to the film’s initial broadcast on Channel 4; like, on the day. The commissioner there described it as the hardest thing they’d made in a decade. But we had really good lawyers, and we were lucky. Fingers crossed that continues.


Amazon employees have begun another round of protests in the UK today in their fight to unionise. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Yeah, of course. I worked undercover at BHX4 in Coventry, where this union drive is taking place and not far from where I grew up. Inside, basically everybody I spoke to talked about chronic pain, they spoke about constant surveillance, they spoke about working in oppressive heat—which I personally experienced. So, they’re trying to establish the first Amazon union aside from the Amazon Labour Union (ALU) in Staten Island.

I was one of about 100 new recruits on my shift, all of which—aside from me and one other person—were students on temporary visas. A lot of us were stood around without much to do. People on the warehouse floor spoke about how there were far too many new people being brought in. According to the GMB trade union, this hiring spree caused the unionisation vote to falter (although Amazon said that the hiring was due to the genuine needs of the business). If this is true, it would be just one of the numerous examples out there. They were issued a cease and desist by the ALU for retaliating against their successful union vote. It would be just gigantic and significant if they were able to pull it off and form a union. I hope they do.

What’s changed in Amazon land since you made the film a year ago?
It’s impossible to keep up with this company. Things change very quickly. I was in that head space of keeping up-to-date with it for about 18 months as we made it. Reading about mad things like the billions they were spending on empty space across America in the pandemic , or the cages that Amazon patented for their workers to work inside to protect them from robots—it’s never ending. I think the most significant thing in my mind right now is the union vote in Coventry.

What did you do with the bottles of piss once you had no further use for them?
They sat in a crate in my garden for far longer than I care to admit.

Where does your lifelong passion for pranks and hoaxes come from?
I grew up as the youngest of six in a very hectic house, and all we cared about was silliness and humour. And the more you commit to a joke, the funnier it gets. Then there’s just something funny about taking the attitude of essentially a child into environments people take extremely seriously. Then doing it in a space that is maybe dangerous is even funnier. That’s why I loved having the central interview of this film being me talking to a lawyer after the fact. I’m essentially showing off to him like a child and he’s stony-faced, just like, “It’s a criminal offence. This isn’t funny.” Of course, that’s the funniest thing he could ever say.

What’s your message to anyone out there who is still using Amazon to buy things like books, shower curtains, and baguette-shaped cushions?
I never want to tell people what to do. But I’ll say this: Jeff Bezos says that his company is the most “customer-obsessed” company on earth. And he justifies all the problematic stuff they do with the fact that you actually want it. He’s essentially blaming you for it. So that’s a lot of power that he’s claiming you have over them—so use it.