What Is Impropaganda?
The Rogues Gallery
to Research Front Groups
What Is Impropaganda?
Edward Bernays, who is generally regarded as the
"father of public relations," liked to tell people, "What I
do is propaganda, and I just hope it's not impropaganda." In his later
years, he became a vocal critic of some of the deceptive techniques used
within the PR industry. And yet it is Bernays himself who invented the
quintessential tool of deceptive propaganda -- the "front group."
Bernays stumbled on this strategy almost by accident.
In 1913, while working as editor of the Medical Review of Reviews, a
monthly magazine owned by a college acquaintance, he discovered that the
then-famous actor Richard Bennett was interested in producing a play titled
"Damaged Goods," which Bernays described as "a propaganda
play that fought for sex education." It discussed sexual topics, such
as prostitution, that were considered unusually frank for their day.
Bennett was afraid that the play would be raided by police, and he hired
Bernays to prevent this from happening. Rather than arguing for the play on
its merits, Bernays cleverly organized a group that he called the
"Medical Review of Reviews Sociological Fund," inviting prominent
doctors and members of the social elite to join. The organization's avowed
mission was to fight venereal disease through education. Its real purpose
was to endorse "Damaged Goods," and apparently the plan worked.
The show went on as scheduled, with no interference from police.
"This was a pioneering move that is common today
in the promotion of public causes--a prestigious sponsoring committee,"
notes PR industry historian Scott Cutlip. "In retrospect, given the
history of public relations, it might be termed the first effort to use the
front or third party technique." It was a technique that
Bernays would return to time and again, calling it "the most useful
method in a multiple society like ours to indicate the support of an idea
of the many varied elements that make up our society. Opinion leaders and
group leaders have an effect in a democracy and stand as symbols to their
constituency." Bernays helped jump-start sales of bacon, a breakfast
rarity until the 1920s, by enlisting a prominent doctor to solicit fellow
doctors' opinions on the salutary benefits of a hearty breakfast and by
arranging to have famous figures photographed eating breakfasts of bacon
and eggs. To sell bananas on behalf of the United Fruit Company, he
launched the "celiac project," republishing and disseminating a
20-year-old medical paper which found that eating bananas cured children
with celiac disease, a disorder of the digestive system.
"Mr. Bernays has . . . created more institutes,
funds, institutions, and foundations than Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Filene
together," observed the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, a nonprofit
educational organization that flourished in the years following World War
I. "Typical of them was the Temperature Research Foundation. Its
stated purpose was 'to disseminate impartial, scientific information
concerning the latest developments in temperature control as they affect the
health, leisure, happiness, and economy of the American people.' A minor
purpose--so minor that rarely did Mr. Bernays remember even to mention
it--was to boost the sales of Kelvinator refrigerators, air-condition
units, and electric stoves."
The tobacco industry, another early Bernays client,
also relied heavily on expert testimonials to tout its products, recruiting
opera singers and doctors to claim that cigarettes soothed the throat and
aided digestion. Advertisements of this type became so ubiquitous that Bernays
spoofed the trend himself by creating a group called the "Tobacco
Society for Voice Culture" which jokingly claimed that its mission was
to "establish a home for singers and actors whose voices have cracked
under the strain of their cigarette testimonials."
The "third party technique" has been defined
by one PR executive as, "put your words in someone else's mouth."
PR firms have been known to put their words in the mouths of journalists by
hiring reporters to write stories which favor their clients, or by funding
tendentious university research which they then publicize as
"proof" of their client's position. The use of scientists as
seemingly independent, authoritative "experts" is another
frequent variation on this technique. PR firms and corporations also like
to sponsor so-called "think tanks" that "think"
whatever the sponsors think they should think. ("Rationalize"
would be a better word.) Here are a few examples of the third party
technique at work:
In the fall of 1997, Georgetown University's Credit Research
Center issued a study which concluded that many debtors are using
bankruptcy as an excuse to wriggle out of their obligations to creditors.
Lobbyists for banks and credit card companies seized on the study as they
lobbied Congress for changes in federal law that would make it harder for
consumers to file for bankruptcy relief. Former U.S. Treasury Secretary
Lloyd Bentsen cited the study in a Washington Times opinion column,
offering Georgetown's academic imprimatur as evidence of the need for
"bankruptcy reform." What Bentsen failed to mention was that the
Credit Research Center is funded in its entirety by credit card companies,
banks, retailers, and others in the credit industry. The study itself was
produced with a $100,000 grant from Visa USA and MasterCard International,
Inc. Bentsen also failed to mention that he himself had been hired to work
as a credit-industry lobbyist.
In Oxford, England, the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC)
calls itself an "independent, non-profit organization founded to
conduct research on social issues." It has issued a call to establish
a British "code of practice" governing what reporters should be
allowed to write about issues of science and public safety. Designed to put
a stop to "irresponsible health scares," the code stipulates that
"scientific stories should be factually accurate. Breaches of the Code
of Practice should be referred to the Press Complaints Commission."
Such a code is necessary, SIRC suggests, because of the public's "riskfactorphobia,"
a term it has coined to describe a condition of excessive sensitivity to
health concerns related to genetically engineered foods and foodborne
illnesses. SIRC has also published popular reports in the British press
about the pleasures of pub-hopping. When the British Medical Journal
took a close look at the organization, however, it found that SIRC shares
the same offices, directors, and leading personnel as a PR firm called MCM
Research that claims to apply "social science" to solving the
problems of its clients, who include prominent names in the liquor and
restaurant industries. "Do your PR initiatives sometimes look too much
like PR initiatives?" asked MCM's website in a straightforward boast
of its ability to deceive the public. "MCM conducts social/psychological
research on the positive aspects of your business," the website
continued. "The results do not read like PR literature, or like market
research data. Our reports are credible, interesting and entertaining in
their own right. This is why they capture the imagination of the media and
Corporate sponsors have formed "partnerships" with
a number of leading nonprofit organizations in which they pay for the right
to use the organizations' names and logos in advertisements. Bristol-Myers
Squibb, for example, paid $600,000 to the American Heart Association for
the right to display the AHA's name and logo in ads for its
cholesterol-lowering drug Pravachol. The American Cancer Society reeled in
$1 million from SmithKline Beecham for the right to use its logo in ads for
Beecham's NicoDerm CQ and Nicorette antismoking aids. A Johnson &
Johnson subsidiary countered by shelling out $2.5 million for similar
rights from the American Lung Association in its ads for Nicotrol, a rival
nicotine patch. In 1999 manufacturers spent $630 million on these and
similar kinds of sponsorship deals, some unseemly, such as a deal between
the Eskimo Pie Corporation and the American Diabetes Association, which was
designed to create the impression that Eskimo's "Sugar Freedom"
line of frozen desserts was endorsed by the American Diabetes Association,
when in fact the desserts contain high levels of both total and saturated
fat--a risky dietary choice for diabetics, who have a propensity for
obesity and heart disease. Although the nonprofit organizations involved in
these deals deny that the use of their names and logos constitutes an
endorsement, the corporate sponsors have no such illusions. "PR pros
view those third-party endorsements as invaluable ways to build goodwill
among consumers for a client's product line," noted O'Dwyer's PR
Services Report. For propriety's sake, however, a bit of discretion is
necessary. "Don't use the word 'endorse' when speaking to executives
from non-profits about their relationships with the private sector," O'Dwyer's
advised. "The preferred non-profit vernacular is: recommended,
sponsorship, approved, or partnership."
An organization called "Consumer Alert" frequently
pops up in news stories about product safety issues. What reporters almost
never mention is that Consumer Alert is funded by corporations and that its
positions are usually diametrically opposed to the positions taken by
independent consumer groups such as Consumers Union. For example, Consumer
Alert opposes flame-resistance standards for clothing fabrics issued by the
Consumer Product Safety Commission, and defends products such as the diet
drug dexfenfluramine (Redux), which was taken off the market because of its
association with heart valve damage. In contrast with Consumers Union,
which is funded primarily by member subscriptions, Consumer Alert is funded
by the industries whose products it defends--companies including
Anheuser-Busch, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, Philip Morris, Allstate Insurance
Fund, American Cyanamid, Elanco, Eli Lilly, Exxon, Monsanto, Upjohn,
Chemical Manufacturers Association, Ciba-Geigy, the Beer Institute, Coors,
and Chevron USA.
In late 1993, a group called Mothers Opposing Pollution
(MOP) appeared, calling itself "the largest women's environmental
group in Australia with thousands of supporters across the country. . . .
The group comprises mainly mothers and other women concerned with the
welfare and rights of Australian women." MOP's cause: a campaign
against plastic milk bottles, centering on the issues of waste disposal,
the carcinogenic risks of milk in contact with plastic, and reduction in
the quality of milk as a result of exposure to light. "The message to
the consumer is never buy milk in plastic containers," said
spokesperson Alana Maloney. Membership in MOP was free, which prompted some
people to wonder how the group could afford to carry out expensive
publicity in support of its cause. Although MOP claimed branches across
Australia, Alana Maloney seemed to be its only spokesperson. Searches of
basic public records, such as voting rolls, could find no such person.
MOP's letterhead listed three addresses in different cities, each of which
turned out to be a post office box. Finally, in February 1995, an
Australian newspaper discovered that "Mrs. Alana Maloney" was in
fact Janet Rundle, who heads a public relations company called J. R. and
Associates. Rundle is also a business partner of Trevor Munnery, who owns
his own PR firm called Unlimited Public Relations, which works for the
Association of Liquidpaperboard Carton Manufacturers (ALC)--the makers of
paper milk cartons.
This sort of manipulation doesn't necessarily entail
outright lies of commission, but it typically entails lies of omission
that disguise the identity of the client whose message has been planted in
someone else's mouth. The "third party technique" is
"impropaganda" because it tends to corrupt journalism, science
and the other institutions which it touches. Moreover, using lies of
omission rather than commission enables the people who participate in front
groups to rationalize that they aren't really doing anything wrong.
The logic of the third party technique implies that
when PR firms set out to manufacture news, they often want to keep their
clients (and themselves) out of the story. It is always important,
therefore, to ask, "Who is funding this? Who is the client behind this
message?" If you come across any groups or individuals who look
suspicious, do some digging to see if they have any undisclosed industry
ties. If it's a scientist, who provides his or her research funding? If
it's a citizen's group, who is on their board of directors, when and how
were they established, and who funds them? Of course, getting the answers
to these questions can sometimes be quite difficult.