By John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton
"I'LL TELL YOU why I like the cigarette business," billionaire Warren Buffett is reported to have once remarked. "It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It's addictive. And there's fantastic brand loyalty."
This comment from the man who was once R.J. Reynolds' largest shareholder illustrates how wide the gap is between reality and tobacco makers' pretense that tobacco's dangers are "not yet proven."
Everyone knows tobacco is addictive and harmful to your health. Its dangers have been warned of for centuries, and scientific evidence has been overwhelming since the 1950s.
The need to hook customers on a product that would kill them made the tobacco industry one of the first major clients of the then-fledgling public relations industry in the early 20th century. Tobacco companies used PR's psychological marketing skills to first hook women and then children on their drug. Legendary PR figures John Hill, Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays (now revered within the industry as the "father of public relations") all worked on PR for tobacco, pioneering techniques that today remain the PR industry's stock in trade: third-party advocacy, subliminal message reinforcement, junk science, phony front groups, advocacy advertising, and buying favorable news reporting with advertising dollars.
To persuade women cigarette smoking could help them stay beautiful, Bernays developed a campaign based on the slogan, "Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet." The campaign played on women's worries about their weight and increased Lucky sales threefold in just 12 months. (The message, "cigarettes keep you thin," reverberates today in the brand name Virginia Slims.)
But smoking remained a taboo for "respectable" women, and Bernays (a nephew of Sigmund Freud) turned to psychoanalyst A.A. Brill for advice. Brill provided a classic Freudian analysis: "Some women regard cigarettes as symbols of freedom....Smoking is a sublimation of oral eroticism....The first women who smoked probably had an excess of masculine components and adopted the habit as a masculine act....Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom."
Brill's analysis inspired Bernays to stage a legendary publicity event that is still taught as a model in PR schools. To sell cigarettes as a symbol of women's liberation, he hired beautiful women to march in New York's prominent Easter parade, each waving a lit cigarette and wearing a banner proclaiming it a "torch of liberty." Bernays made sure publicity photos of his smoking models appeared world-wide.
Decades of saturation cigarette advertising and promotion continued into the 1950s via billboards, magazines, movies, TV and radio. Thanks to Bernays and other early pioneers of public relations, cigarettes built a marketing juggernaut upon an unshakable identification with sex, youth, vitality and freedom. The work for the tobacco industry, in turn, earned PR widespread credibility and launched the rise of today's multi-billion dollar public relations industry.
The Truth HurtsIN 1952, READER'S Digest ran an influential article titled "Cancer by the Carton." A 1953 report by Dr. Ernst L. Wynder heralded to the scientific community a definitive link between cigarette smoking and cancer. Over the next two years, dozens of articles appeared in The New York Times and other major public publications: Good Housekeeping, the New Yorker, Look, Woman's Home Companion. Sales of cigarettes went into an unusual, sudden decline.
The tobacco czars were in a panic. Internal memos from the industry-funded Tobacco Institute refer to the PR fallout from this scientific discovery as the "1954 emergency." Fighting desperately for its economic life, the tobacco industry launched what must be considered the costliest, longest-running and most successful PR "crisis management" campaign in history. In the words of the industry itself, the campaign was aimed at "promoting cigarettes and protecting them from these and other attacks," by "creating doubt about the health charge without actually denying it, and advocating the public's right to smoke, without actually urging them to take up the practice."
For help, the tobacco industry turned to John Hill, the founder of the PR megafirm, Hill & Knowlton. Hill designed a brilliant and expensive campaign the tobacco industry is still using today in its fight to save itself from public rejection and governmental action.
Hill is remembered today as a shrewd but ethical businessman. In a letter, he once stated, "It is not the work of public relations...to outsmart the American public by helping management build profits." Yet Hill's work to save tobacco in the 1950s is such an egregious example of "outsmarting the American public...to build profits" that Hill & Knowlton is still in court today answering criminal charges. The strategy he prescribed has been described by the American Cancer Society as "a delaying action to mislead the public into believing that no change in smoking habits is indicated from existing statistical and pathological evidence."
Smoke and MirrorsAT HILL'S SUGGESTION, the industry created a group called the Tobacco Institute Research Committee (TIRC), and ran a full-page ad, titled "A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers," in more than 400 newspapers. The ad acknowledged tobacco companies had a "special responsibility" to the public, and promised to sponsor "independent research" aimed at "learning the facts about smoking and health."
This pretense of honest concern from a respected figure worked its expected magic. Opinion research by Hill & Knowlton showed only 9 percent of the newspapers expressing opinions on the TIRC were unfavorable, whereas 65 percent were favorable without reservation.
There is no question the tobacco industry knew what scientists were learning about tobacco. The TIRC maintained a library with cross-indexed medical and scientific papers from 2,500 medical journals, as well as press clippings, government reports and other documents. TIRC employees culled this library for scientific data with inconclusive or contrary results regarding tobacco and the harm to human health. These were compiled into a carefully selected 18-page booklet, titled "A Scientific Perspective on the Cigarette Controversy," which was mailed to over 200,000 people, including doctors, members of Congress and the news media.
During the 1950s, tobacco companies more than doubled their advertising budgets, going from $76 million in 1953 to $122 million in 1957. The TIRC spent another $948,151 in 1954 alone, of which one-fourth went to Hill & Knowlton, another fourth went to pay for media ads, and most of the remainder went to administrative costs. Despite TIRC's promise to "sponsor independent research," only $80,000, or less than 10 percent of the total budget for the year, actually went to scientific projects.
In 1963 the TIRC changed its name to the Council for Tobacco Research. In addition to this "scientific" council, Hill & Knowlton helped set up a separate PR and lobbying organization, the Tobacco Institute. Formed in 1958, the Tobacco Institute grew by 1990 into what the Public Relations Journal described as one of the "most formidable public relations/lobbying machines in history," spending an estimated $20 million a year and employing 120 PR professionals to fight the combined forces of the Surgeon General of the United States, the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association.
In the 1990s, medical studies estimated 400,000 of the 50 million smokers in the United States were dying each year from tobacco-related diseases, and that smoking was likely to be a contributing factor in the deaths of half the smokers in the country. Tobacco opponents lobbied for public education and strict new regulations to prevent youthful addiction and to protect the public's right to a smoke-free environment.
But despite smoking's bad press, tobacco profits have continued to soar, and the industry is opening new, unregulated mega-markets in Asia, Eastern Europe and the Third World. Even in the U.S., most attempts at serious federal or state regulation or taxation are swatted down by tobacco's skilled army of highly paid Lobbyists.
Snatching Victory from the AshesONE WAY THE cigarette industry intends to keep winning is by escalating to unprecedented levels its use of front groups such as the "National Smokers Alliance," an ambitious and well-funded "grassroots" campaign developed by Burson-Marsteller PR with millions of dollars from Philip Morris.
The National Smokers Alliance (NSA) is a state-of-the-art campaign that uses full-page newspaper ads, direct telemarketing, paid canvassers, free 800 numbers and newsletters to bring thousands of smokers into its ranks each week. By 1995 NSA claimed a membership of three million smokers. The campaign's goal is to rile up and mobilize a committed cadre of foot soldiers in a grassroots army directed by Philip Morris' political operatives at Burson-Marsteller. Philip Morris knows that to win politically it has to "turn out the troops," people who can emotionally battle on its behalf. The NSA is a sophisticated, camouflaged campaign that organizes tobacco's victims to protect tobacco's profits.
In the past, the tobacco industry attempted, not too convincingly, to distance itself from pro-smoking forces. The Tobacco Institute's Brennan Dawson told Congressional Quarterly in 1990, "If we were to fund smokers' rights groups and bring them to Washington, wouldn't they then be viewed as an arm of the tobacco industry?"
Apparently desperate times require more obvious measures. In 1994, National Journal writer Peter Stone observed NSA "is increasingly looking like a subsidiary of Burson-Marsteller," and noted the PR firm "used its grassroots lobbying unit, the Advocacy Communications Team, to start building membership in the group last year." Thomas Humber, a Burson-Marsteller vice-president, is president and CEO of the NSA. Burson executives Kenneth Rietz and Pierre Salinger are active, as is Peter G. Kelly, a prominent Democrat with the firm of Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, which is owned by Burson-Marsteller.
How does the NSA recruit smoking's victims into becoming its advocates? Through a combination of high-tech direct marketing techniques and old-fashioned "feet in the street" community organizing. Like every good grassroots group, the National Smokers Alliance has a folksy but strident newsletter for its membership, called The NSA Voice. According to its June 1994 issue, the NSA pays hundreds of young activists to sign up members in bars and bowling alleys in cities around the country. Eric Schippers, in charge of the membership drive, reported that "during only the first two months of activity, the Chicago campaign put 180 recruiters on the street and enlisted more than 40,000 members."
Many NSA members are first recruited via full-page ads with 800 numbers that exhort puffers to stand up for their rights. Everyone who calls receives the NSA newsletter free for three months, along with 10 membership recruitment cards and stickers to place in stores and restaurants that say, "I am a smoker and have spent $______ in your establishment." NSA members who sign up another 10 people at $10 each can win a free NSA T-shirt. The committed and informed pro-smoking advocate can also call a free 800 number to order more sign-up cards and stickers, or get the latest marching orders regarding which bureaucrats or politicians need nudging from Marlboro's masses. One recent NSA mailing, sent first class to hundreds of thousands of smokers, urged them to write letters to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to defeat new regulations that would "ban smoking in any site where work is conducted."
Burson-Marsteller's propagandists have even coined a clever play on words that questions the patriotism of anti-smokers by calling them "anti-Americans." NSA's newsletter advises, "If 'Anti' America is pushing a discriminatory smoking ban in your workplace, speak up," and "check the laws in your state with regard to the protection of individual rights."
Bringing in the SheavesIN RECENT YEARS California has been the front line of the tobacco wars and the state where the industry has suffered its worst setbacks. In 1988 the cigarette companies spent more than $20 million in a failed effort to defeat a major anti-smoking initiative. Since then health activists have passed hundreds of local smoking bans. As a result, California has seen a 27 percent decrease in cigarette consumption, the most success of any state in reducing tobacco's deadly toll.
Philip Morris is fighting back through a California PR firm called the Dolphin Group. Dolphin CEO Lee Stitzenberger used a half-million dollars from Philip Morris to set up a front group called "Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions." Using this deceptive name, NSA members gathered signatures to put a referendum on the California ballot in November 1994, which the Dolphin Group promoted with billboards reading, "Yes on 188--Tough Statewide Smoking Restrictions--The Right Choice."
In reality, Proposition 188 was a pro-tobacco referendum which, if passed, would have undermined 270 existing local anti-smoking ordinances in California cities, as well as the state's new statewide smoke-free workplace law. Anti-smoking groups charged that many of the people who signed petitions in favor of the referendum were led to believe they were supporting a measure to protect nonsmokers and youths. After the public learned about the funding source behind "Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions," opinion turned decisively against the referendum and it was voted down. "The $25 million smokescreen the tobacco industry created to dupe Californians into voting for Proposition 188 has cleared, and the voters have spoken," declared the American Cancer Society.
The tobacco industry's PR campaign is not really about swaying public opinion, a battle which the industry has already lost. Even half of smokers favor stricter government regulation of their deadly habit. The industry's goal is not to win good PR, but to avoid losing political and legal battles. This survivalist strategy has served the cigarette industry well for 40 years. At a PR seminar in May 1994, Tom Lauria, the chief lobbyist for the Tobacco Institute, pointed out tobacco sales continue to grow worldwide. He dismissed tobacco critics as simply a "political correctness craze" and ridiculed predictions of tobacco's demise, saying the media have been preparing smoking's obituary for decades. Tobacco may be fighting for its life, but Lauria reminded the assembled PR practitioners their industry has been fighting and winning that battle for a long time.
Flack AttackA ROMANTIC MYTHOLOGY surrounds the journalistic profession. We like to think that reporters are all like the guys on N.Y. News, relentlessly digging until the truth is exposed and villains receive their just punishment.
For the people who really shape the news--the public relations industry--this myth serves an obvious useful function. It is also a useful myth for the news media, which perpetuate the image of the crusading press with frequent self-congratulatory editorials and newspaper mastheads proclaiming "The only security of all is a free press."
In reality, according to scholars who study the media, at least 40 percent of all "news" today flows virtually unedited from public relations offices. Media critics note journalists habitually fail to report on themselves. They also fail to report on the PR industry. To do so would reveal the extent of media dependency on PR for access, sources, quotes, stories and ideas.
The fact of this dependency is, of course, common knowledge among reporters and PR professionals, and you can find frequent references to it in leading trade publications. As an example, take the recent review which appeared in O'Dwyer's PR Services Report describing our new book, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry.
According to O'Dwyer's, the book "carries a loaded title, but is a fairly straightforward insider account of the doings of PR people.... The book won't startle those working in the PR business, but it promises to be a real eye-opener to people who view PR as nothing more than harmless press agent puffery."
If this assessment is correct, PR professionals are even more cynical than we imagined when we wrote the book. Toxic Sludge Is Good For You describes a giant, secretive propaganda-for-hire industry that works behind the scenes to spin the news and twist public opinion, networking with spies, infiltrators, Lobbyists and influence peddlers to dominate political debate and undermine democracy.
Today's PR firms organize phony "astroturf" grassroots groups that lobby for the tobacco, automobile and insurance industries, and create biased "video news releases" that often air unedited on the evening news, fooling viewers into thinking they're watching TV journalism. PR practitioners help the food and chemical industries deep-six books about dangerous pesticides, use "greenwashing" to divide and conquer environmentalists, and are presently campaigning to clean up the image of toxic sewage sludge, renaming it "biosolids" and calling it a "vitamin pill for the earth" so sewage treatment plants can sell it as fertilizer to unsuspecting American farmers.
One firm, Sawyer/Miller, even masterminded a PR campaign on behalf of the government of Colombia, one of the world's most egregious human rights abusers and a compliant haven for the world's worst drug cartels. By the time Sawyer/Miller got through, President Bill Clinton was referring to Colombia as a democratic leader and "one of our strongest allies...in the effort to free the world of the scourge of narcotics trafficking."
These revelations may shock you, and they ought to shock even seasoned flacks, but as O'Dwyer's observes, practices that most people find outrageous are simply another day at the office for PR megafirms like Burson-Marsteller and Hill & Knowlton. Accusing the PR industry of manipulating the truth is like criticizing sharks for eating meat, or snakes for poisoning their victims. They do what they do because it's in their nature. If God had intended otherwise, he wouldn't have given them fangs.
Actually, the people we ought to be criticizing are the journalists who let the PR industry get away with manipulating the truth.
With the computer information banks and other information resources now available, investigative journalism is easier to practice than ever before. Reporters could and should use these resources to dig behind the scenes, exposing the PR industry's manipulations and the scandals that emanate from corporate boardrooms and government bureaucracies.
Instead, we get superficial journalism, news by press release and endless regurgitation of easy-to-cover no-brainers like the O.J. Simpson case.
At the very least, the news media ought to offer truth in labeling. "News stories" that are merely edited press releases ought to include disclaimers identifying the PR firm, government agency or corporation that wrote them. Video news releases should include subtitles stating "footage supplied by Hill & Knowlton PR."
C'mon you guys in newsrooms, clean up your act. Do the job you're paid for. If you try, you might discover even the public relations industry is rooting for you to succeed.
After all, as PR pro Kirk Hallahan recently observed, new technology has already made you superfluous. "Today, with many more options available, PR professionals are much less dependent upon mass media for publicity," Hallahan stated in the Summer 1994 Public Relations Quarterly. "In the decade ahead, the largest American corporations could underwrite entire, sponsored channels. Organizations such as Procter & Gamble might circumvent public media altogether and subsidize programming that combines promotional and otherwise conducive messages--news, Talk Shows, infomercials, or sponsored entertainment or sports.... Channel sponsors will be able reach coveted super-heavy users...with a highly tailored message over which they exert complete control."
But Hallahan hopes to preserve a place at the table for the traditional news media, and he worries its usefulness may be lost if "media organizations cheapen the value of their product.... When a news medium covered a story in the past, the information sponsor gained more than mere exposure. The client, product or cause gained salience, stature and legitimacy."
That legitimacy will be lost, he warns, if the public ceases to see a difference between news and paid propaganda. "While PR people might circumvent the press occasionally, we aren't going to want to do so all the time," Hallahan writes. "We can't kill the goose that laid the golden egg. A loss of public reliance upon and confidence in the mass media could be devastating."
John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton write and edit the quarterly PR Watch: Public Interest Reporting on the PR/Public Affairs Industry. Their new book, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, from which this article is excerpted, is being published by Common Courage Press.
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