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updated 7/22/2011 12:49:17 PM ET 2011-07-22T16:49:17

When a protester threw a pie earlier this week at media mogul Rupert Murdoch during Parliamentary hearings on his company's phone-hacking scandal, the incident elicited shocked gasps from his immediate audience, followed quickly by a wave of international media coverage.

In other words, the protester achieved exactly what he was going for, said Pamela Oliver, a sociologist and expert on social movements at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Single-handedly, he drew attention to his opinions, without having to organize any kind of group effort at all.

He also added to more than a century's-worth of protest behavior that has evolved over time to address specific issues in a variety of contexts.

"Pie-throwing is in a category of creative protests, where the subtype is a peaceful protest," Oliver said. "The whole point of this kind of protest is to get media attention. It's a complex dance between social movements, activists, their opponents, and their audience -- the media."

Clearly, it worked.

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"You're an example of the media attention cycle," she added. Pie-throwing occurs periodically, but every once in a while, an incident like this one gets a lot of coverage, which inspires more pie-throwing, until everyone gets tired of pie-throwing again.

"People will continue throwing pies, and it'll take a while for them to realize that it's not working anymore," she said. "Then, they'll look for something else that will get media attention."

Uprisings and revolts have marked human history for many hundreds of years, but the modern concept of a protest didn't arise until the 19th century, Oliver said. As social movements organized and evolved, the types of protest people have chosen to employ has also changed, depending on the time and place.


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In the 1800s, for example, guerilla theater became a common form of protest, and activists would perform plays in the streets to make their point. In the 1960s, sit-ins became popular ways for protesters to cause peaceful trouble for their oppressors, but those are less prevalent now.

Today, marches and rallies are more common ways to publicly express discontent, though protests can also be much more dramatic and even deadly. Unrest in the Middle East, for example, led to a recent rash of protesters setting themselves on fire.

On a lighter note, pie-throwing seems to have left the realm of silent-movie comedy and joined the protest repertoire around 1970, according to an article on TheAtlantic.com. That year, the editor of High Times used a pie as a weapon against Otto N. Larsen, who was chairman of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Commission on Obscenity and Pornography.

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Since then, famous victims have included former head of the International Monetary Fund Michel Camdessus, former CEO of Enron Jeffrey Skilling, former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, former CEO of Microsoft Bill Gates, political pundit Ann Coulter, journalist Thomas Friedman and the late artist Andy Warhol, among many, many others.

Several activist groups remain dedicated solely to throwing pies at people they disagree with, including Al-Pieda and the Biotic Baking Brigade, which is featured in an underground film called "The Pie's the Limit."

No pie-activists responded to interview requests for this story. But an article online posted by Agent A La Mode of the Video Activist Network explains at least part of the motivation behind pie-ing:

"Traditional, more accepted forms of protest (such as letter-writing, picketing, protest marching) aren't so effective without large numbers…Messages and slogans of well-meaning activists have been co-opted, marginalized or simply ignored.

The creamy critiques and pielitical pressure of the Biotic Baking Brigade are direct, visually pleasing and funny. Even the corporate-owned media is compelled to report on pie incidents and to take advantage of the popularity of the image of full facial entartement. All tactics need to be deployed in the struggle to free jaded workers everywhere . . . from the nightmare of mind-controlled consumerism and acquiescence. Let the pie's fly!"

While pie-ing might seem extreme to some, the act is not that different from other forms of protest, said John Drury, a social psychologist at the University of Sussex. It emerges from a sense of unfairness. And it gives people a sense of empowerment in a situation where they feel disenfranchised.

Drury hasn't done any research on pie-ing, but he has studied protesters who flung Cornish pasties at councilors responsible for setting a hated poll tax.

"In disrupting the formal proceedings of the council meeting with irreverence, they punctured the councilors' sense of importance," he said. "Humor and humiliation are used to undermine and disempower the powerful."

Whether pie-ing actually makes any kind of difference in the context of social change is hard to determine. But the behavior does get media attention, as Oliver pointed out. Support also comes from research suggesting that protests are more likely to work if they involve lots of disruption rather than polite requests.

Even if people "don't get the joke," Drury said, throwing pies can make pie-throwers feel a whole lot better, too. He has published several studies showing that getting involved in protest movements helps people feel good about themselves. In general, protests and social movements also bring people together, making them feel less alone.

"If you ask them, you get lots of reports of not just happiness, but joy and exhilaration, and these strong positive moods extend into other areas of people's lives," Drury said. "It's always good for us to have a sense of agency. It's bad for you to feel you have no power in life."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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