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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 your customers."

                     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.

 

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