Volume 5, No. 3
Third Quarter 1998


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PR Watch is a publication of the Center for Media & Democracy
520 University Avenue, Suite 310
Madison, WI 53703
phone: (608) 260-9713
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email: editor@prwatch.org

Global Spin:
the Corporate Assault on Environmentalism

Price: $19.95
Chelsea Green Publishing
PO Box 428
White River Junction, VT 05001

book review by Sheldon Rampton

The twentieth century, argued Australian scholar Alex Carey, has been shaped largely by three trends: "the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy."

Now Sharon Beder, another Australian, has published Global Spin: the Corporate Assault on Environmentalism. In it, she examines the third of the trends that Carey talked about: corporate propaganda and its corrosive effect on democratic institutions. What she describes will be surprising, shocking and yet simultaneously familiar to many readers.

Most people realize, for example, that public relations concerns are what motivate companies to engage in charitable activities, and yet they will be shocked at the level of manipulation that Beder finds at the heart of a corporate practice that is almost universally greeted with praise: charitable contributions to education.

Global Spin examines the quid pro quo that accompanies these gifts, showing in exquisite detail how corporate giveaway programs have converted classrooms into unabashed vehicles for corporate marketing and indoctrination. The true purpose of industry-sponsored educational materials, according to one of the companies that specializes in designing them, is to help companies "enter the classroom through custom-made learning materials with your specific marketing objectives in mind. Communicate with young spenders directly and, through them, their teachers and families as well."

The propaganda can be subtle, but sometimes it is blatant beyond belief. One company, called Teacher Support Systems, actually puts out a free, widely-used educational kit with test questions such as "Taco Bell has [blank] and burritos."

Another company, Channel One, loans schools VCRs, TV sets and satellite dishes "in exchange for students' minds twelve minutes each day." The deal requires schools to guarantee that at least 90 percent of their students will watch the in-class commercials that are part of Channel One's TV "news" program for the classroom, in a structured environment with an authority figure demanding their attention. As Beder observes, "The deal is quite coercive for schools that sign up for a three-year contract. If they break the contract, for example by not requiring ninety percent of students to watch, . . . then they are 'financially liable for the cost of cabling school buildings and for the removal of video equipment.' Teachers are not supposed to interrupt or turn off the broadcast whilst it is being aired. . . . A study of 3,000 Channel One viewing students in North Carolina found that most of them thought the products advertised would be good for them because they were being shown the advertisements in school."

This type of trickery is not limited to the public schools. Commercial interests have also become incredibly adept at disguising themselves as public-spirited citizen groups. In a chapter titled "Fronting for Industry," Global Spin examines the strategy that Merrill Rose of the Porter/Novelli PR firm describes as "Put your words in someone else's mouth." Examples include:

  • the Council for Solid Waste Solutions, sponsored by the plastic industry in defense of throwaway plastic;
  • the Alliance for Responsible CFC Policy, financed by companies such as Dow Chemical to oppose regulation of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons;
  • the Global Climate Coalition, which lobbies on behalf of the oil, auto and coal industries to prevent any regulatory interference with global warming;
  • Citizens for Sensible Control of Acid Rain, which operated between 1983 and 1991 to oppose tightening the Clean Air Act;
  • and the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, created by the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers of America to fight against higher fuel efficiency standards.

PR firms create these front groups, Beder writes, to help "their corporate clients convince key politicians that there is broad support for their environmentally damaging activities or their demands for looser environmental regulations. Using specially tailored mailing lists, field officers, telephone banks and the latest in information technology, these firms are able to generate hundreds of telephone calls and/or thousands of pieces of mail to key politicians, creating the impression of wide public support for their client's position. This sort of operation was almost unheard-of ten years ago, yet in the US today, where 'technology makes building volunteer organizations as simple as writing a check,' it has become 'one of the hottest trends in politics' and an $800 million industry."

The ultimate front group, in Beder's book, is the "Wise Use Movement," to which she devotes a full chapter, beginning with its origins as the brainchild of timber industry consultant Ron Arnold, who chose the term "Wise Use" because, in his words, "It was symbolic, it has no exact definition, . . . It can mean anything."

The Wise Use agenda, adopted in 1988, was really a wish list for industry, calling for "all public lands including wilderness and public parks" to be opened for mining and timber extraction by private businesses. Since then, generous doses of corporate funding have enabled Wise Use to develop into something that looks like a genuine social movement, bringing together a loose coalition of property-rights absolutists, opponents of gun-control, angry farmers and corporate fixers that downplay threats to the environment while billing Wise Use as the "true" environmental movement.

==========================

Most people realize
that public relations concerns
are what motivate companies
to engage in charitable activities,
but they will be shocked
at the level of manipulation.

==========================

Some of these facts have been documented elsewhere, notably in David Helvarg's landmark 1994 book, The War Against the Greens. What distinguishes Global Spin is the diverse range of corporate tactics which it examines. Beder's book is also notable for its international scope, which offers numerous examples from England, Australia and Canada--virtually the entire English-speaking world.

A chapter titled "Lawsuits Against Public Participation," for example, criss-crosses the globe as it details the growing corporate strategy of suing real citizen-activists in order to intimidate them into silence and passivity. Examples include the infamous "McLibel" lawsuit against two British environmentalists who circulated a leaflet criticizing McDonald's; a lawsuit by timber interests against community groups that opposed the logging of an ancient rainforest in Canada, and an Australian city council's successful use of legal threats to silence a local newspaper following criticism of the city for dumping sewage effluent into the ocean.

Beder also analyzes the origins and activities of corporate-funded think-tanks that "spread a patina of academese and expertise over the views of their sponsors." Examples include the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, England's Institute of Economic Affairs and Adam Smith Institute, and the Centre for Independent Studies in Australia.

Global Spin details the revolving door through which conservative think-tanks "nuture a new generation of conservative leaders . . . by sponsoring college students and promising junior bureaucrats," as well as providing a convenient place "for discarded government officials to go when there is a change of government, where they can be employed until 'their' government is re-elected, whilst still having some influence over public policy in the meantime."

Along the way, Beder deftly dismantles the scholarly pretentions of outfits like the Heritage Foundation, which spends only forty percent of its budget on actual research, while devoting the remainder to marketing, fundraising and public relations.

As Beder explains, "All this marketing enables the Foundation to successfully attract mass media coverage for its publications and policy proposals. The Foundation claims that it usually gets 200 or more stories nationwide from each of the position papers it publishes. . . . Its specialty is its 'backgrounders' or 'bulletins' which are short essays (between two and twenty pages) on current issues--'brief enough to read in a limousine ride from National Airport to Capitol Hill.' "

It would have been nice to see Global Spin devote more space to the many genuine citizen groups which offer alternatives to corporate propaganda. It also would have been nice if the book had been footnoted differently. Beder's sources are identified in the notes but not always in the text, and she uses a "two-tiered" reference system so that in order to understand a footnote, the reader has to turn to her bibliography. In some cases this detracts from the book's clarity. I had to flip back and forth on several occasions to see whether a particular quotation came from a corporate flack or a corporate critic.

These, however, are minor criticisms of a book whose virtues far outweigh its flaws. Global Spin is an ambitious, important analysis of corporate propaganda in all its gory splendor, which ought to be carefully read by anyone who wants to understand how public opinion and policy are molded and twisted in modern society.