How can we fight corporate propaganda?
By Ed Finn
The machinations of corporate thought-control experts, as propaganda expert Edward Bernays cautioned, have to be carefully concealed from public view. But occasionally the screen is pulled away and the puppeteers revealed, as in the books written by former PR whiz John Stauber and his colleague Sheldon Rampton.
In Toxic Sludge is Good for You, they exposed the antics of the PR agencies employed to present a favourable image of the industries with the worst pollution records. In Trust Us, We’re Experts, they explained how the media are deployed to instill and perpetuate a favourable public perception of the transnational corporations.
According to Stauber and Rampton, “We are the most conditioned, programmed beings the world has ever known. Not only are our thoughts and attitudes constantly being shaped and moulded, but our very awareness (of this process) is subtly erased… It is an exhausting and endless task to keep explaining to people how most issues of conventional wisdom are scientifically implanted in the public consciousness by a thousand media clips per day… If everybody believes something — if it is part of the conventional wisdom — it’s probably wrong.”
Some current examples of such implanted conventional wisdom, as listed by Stauber and Rampton, may be discerned in the field of health care:
- Pharmaceuticals restore health.
- Chemotherapy and radiation are effective cures for cancer.
- Hospitals are safe and clean.
- All drugs are thoroughly tested before they go on the market.
- You never outgrow your need for milk.
- The cure for cancer is just around the corner.
These are all illusions created by the corporate spin doctors through billions of dollars in advertising and public relations.
The mind-control methods devised by Bernays and his followers were evident in the successful efforts to promote free trade, privatization, deregulation, and tax cuts, and to belittle or deny the damage done to the environment by industrial pollution.
The lessons Bernays taught his PR specialists include the selective use of language, the value of “independent third-party” endorsements, the distribution of canned “news” releases, and the hiring of compliant scientists and experts.
Stauber and Rampton give examples of these lessons:
Language spin: When shaping or reshaping a corporate image, stay away from substance; create images instead. Tell people that complex issues can only be decided by “experts.” Focus on emotions, not facts. Put the desired spin on issues, but never state a clearly demonstrable lie. (Which is why we’re no longer told that tobacco is good for us.) Speak and write in generalities, using emotionally positive words (like “free” and “trade.”)
“Independent” third parties: If an oil company were to deny that burning oil contributes to global warming, its motives might be questioned. But if an “independent” research institute with a credible-sounding name like the Global Climate Coalition says global warming is a myth, people are more inclined to believe it. So the corporations, following Bernays’s advice, have funded the establishment of dozens of institutes and foundations (like the Fraser Institute in Canada) that are little more than mouthpieces or front groups for big business. They include the Tobacco Institute Research Council, the American Council on Science and Health, the Alliance for Better Foods, the International Food Information Council, and the Industrial Health Foundation. They all churn out “scientific” studies that “prove” whatever their corporate funders want.
Canned news releases: The corporations and their front groups send the media hundreds of “press releases” every week promoting new “breakthrough” products or defending firms from attacks by NGOs or consumer organizations. Such releases, including radio and TV clips, save journalists the trouble of doing their own investigative work, and often are reported word for word from the release — instant “news” written by corporate PR hacks. On some days, according to Stauber and Rampton, as many as half the articles in the major newspapers and half the items on a TV newscast are based solely on such corporate PR releases.
Science for hire: Prominent scientists can sometimes be induced (even bribed) to endorse or support “research” findings by the corporations’ front groups. Their names in a press release can often guarantee publication of something that is pseudo-science at best, or even a blatant PR fabrication.
Back in the 1920s, for example, General Motors discovered that adding lead to gasoline gave cars more horsepower. To allay concerns about the damage to public health, GM paid the Bureau of Mines to do some fake “testing” and publish findings that “proved” the inhalation of lead was harmless. This spurious study was then backed up by the world-famous Sloan-Kettering Memorial Institute for Medical Research, founded by Charles Kettering, who also (by a sheer coincidence, of course) happened to be an executive with General Motors. All anti-lead research was then effectively discouraged for the next 50 years, and it wasn’t until the 1980s, after the belated revelation that lead was indeed a major carcinogen, that leaded gas was gradually phased out. By that time, many millions of tons of lead vapour had been released into the atmosphere.
Those of us who are striving every day to “de-brainwash” the victims of corporate propaganda obviously face immensely strong, lavishly financed, exceptionally skilled, and basically unprincipled adversaries. It’s a one-sided contest. We lack the resources and the media access enjoyed by the disciples of Edward Bernays.
Still, it’s by no means a hopeless struggle. We have a few advantages. One is that the excesses of our corporate rulers — socially, economically and environmentally — are becoming so glaringly obvious that even the most cunning and well-funded spin doctors are having trouble concealing or whitewashing them. A good example is the now discredited corporate effort to deny the reality of man-made global warming. Despite the most intense campaign to dismiss climate change as a myth, more and more people now realize that it is happening and that the burning of fossil fuels is the main culprit.
Another example is the failure of a concerted PR attempt to justify the genetic engineering of food products. Most people in Canada, according to an EKOS poll, are now opposed to GMO foods. Unfortunately, such foods fill our grocery store shelves because — unlike in Europe — food companies here are not compelled by law to disclose GMO content on the labels.
Another advantage we now have is the Internet, which (so far) has not fallen under corporate control and is thus providing us with a powerful medium for exposing corporate propaganda and building resistance to it.
Most people, however, still rely on the commercial media for their information, so the preponderant “free-market” mantra trumpeted by most of our newspapers, TV and radio networks continues to be a formidable barrier. We lack access to progressive large-circulation news outlets such as those enjoyed by people in most continental European countries. The commercial media there are not entirely owned and controlled by big business as they are in Canada and the United States.
Indeed, some daily newspapers and TV/radio stations in Europe are actually owned by unions or co-ops, so people there are exposed to news and views from the left as well as the right — which helps explain why most European countries have far surpassed us in social, economic, and environmental policies.
Still, even without a strong voice in the mainstream media in Canada, we continue to make progress in challenging the corporate propaganda machine. Most Canadians want tax fairness, a more equitable distribution of income, improved public health care, more affordable and accessible higher education, and a cleaner and safer environment.
It is not overly optimistic, in fact, to foresee a time when the “masses,” so easily misled and manipulated by Bernays and successive modern spin doctors, will stop believing everything they’re told by the corporate media. It may not even be wishful thinking to expect that a majority of Canadians will soon open their minds to more equitable, more humane, more socially constructive, and more environmentally friendly alternatives to corporate and political neoliberalism.