Illusions at work

Feb 7, 2001 at 12:00 am

The following is an adaptation from Trust Us, We’re Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future (Tarcher Putnam, 2001)

During the reign of Catherine the Great in Russia, one of her closest advisers was field marshal Grigori Potemkin, who used numerous wiles on her behalf. When Catherine toured the countryside with foreign dignitaries, Potemkin arranged to have fake villages built in advance of her visits so as to create an illusion of prosperity. Since that time, the term “Potemkin village” has become a metaphor for things that look elaborate and impressive but in actual fact lack substance.

The modern-day public relations industry frequently uses a strategy that amounts to Potemkin punditry — the manipulation of public opinion by financing and publicizing views congenial to the public policy goals of their sponsors. If he were alive today, Potemkin would probably be amazed at the number and sophistication of the political facades that have been erected in today’s media landscape. Here are a few examples of the process at work:

In the fall of 1997, Georgetown University’s Credit Research Center issued a study that 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.

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.

An organization called “Consumer Alert” frequently pops up in news stories about product safety issues. What the 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 the early 1990s, tobacco companies secretly paid 13 scientists a total of $156,000 to write a few letters to influential medical journals. One biostatistician received $10,000 for writing a single, eight-paragraph letter that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. A cancer researcher received $20,137 for writing four letters and an opinion piece to [the British medical journal] the Lancet, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, and the Wall Street Journal. The scientists didn’t even have to write the letters themselves. Two tobacco-industry law firms were available to do the actual drafting and editing.

When the Justice Department began antitrust investigations of the Microsoft Corporation in 1998, Microsoft’s public relations firm countered with a plan to plant pro-Microsoft articles, letters to the editor and opinion pieces all across the nation, crafted by professional media handlers but meant to be perceived as off-the-cuff, heartfelt testimonials by “people out there.”

These examples share a common reliance upon a public relations strategy known as the “third-party technique.” Merrill Rose, executive vice president of the Porter/Novelli PR firm, explains the technique succinctly: “Put your words in someone else’s mouth.”

How effective is this strategy? According to a survey commissioned by Porter/Novelli, 89 percent of respondents consider “independent experts” a “very or somewhat believable source of information during a corporate crisis.”

Sometimes the technique is used to hype or exaggerate the benefits of a product. Other times it is used to create doubt about a product’s hazards, or about criticisms that have been made of a company’s business practices. The “someone else’s” become Potemkin authorities, faithfully spouting the opinions of their benefactors while making it appear that their views are “independent.”

You used to see this technique in its most obvious and crude form in the television commercials that featured actors in physicians’ lab coats announcing that “nine out of 10 doctors prefer” their brand of aspirin. But advertisements are obvious propaganda, and the third-party technique in its more subtle forms is designed to prevent audiences from even realizing what they are experiencing.

“The best PR ends up looking like news,” brags one public relations executive. “You never know when a PR agency is being effective; you’ll just find your views slowly shifting.”

John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton head the Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit organization in Madison, Wis. The group can be found online at

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