Astroturfing

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Smokers’ rights groups
To create an impression of spontaneous, grassroots public support.

WHO Definitions of Tobacco Industry Tactics for resisting effective tobacco control, 2009.''


Astroturfing is the term used for the faking of a grassroots movement, when in reality the agenda and strategy is controlled by a hidden company or organisation. In that sense, it is one of the typical Third Party Techniques - a very specific use of Front Groups, consisting of individuals pretending to be voicing their own opinions on their own initiative, mimicking genuine activist groups.

Fake Grassroots in the 1990s

One of the world's leading PR companies Burson-Marsteller has a long involvement with the tobacco industry. In 1992, the PR company set up a unit specialised in grassroots lobbying called the Advocacy Communications Team. The following year, in 1993, this team created the National Smokers Alliance on behalf of Philip Morris. The tobacco money allowed this "grassroots" alliance to use full-page advertisements, direct telemarketing and other high-tech campaign strategies to build its membership to a claimed 300,000 by 1995.

There was also an overlap of staff: The Alliance's president was the vice president of Burson-Marsteller, and other Burson-Marsteller executives were actively involved in the organisation. However, the names of the NSA's corporate funders and organisers were kept off the group's materials, according to PR Watch.[1]

Just like a real grassroots group, the National Smokers Alliance had a folksy but strident newsletter for its membership, called The NSA Voice to disseminate the pro-smoking message. According to its June 1994 issue, the NSA was paying hundreds of young activists, mostly unemployed college students, to sign up NSA members in bars and bowling alleys in Washington, Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, New York Seattle and other cities.

One NSA mailing, sent first class to hundreds of thousands of smokers, urged that letters be sent to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to defeat new regulations that would "BAN SMOKING IN ANY SITE WHERE WORK IS CONDUCTED" (capitalization in the original).

Burson-Marsteller's team developed a PR strategy whereby anti-smokers were called "anti Americans." NSA's newsletter advised, "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".

This strategy from the 1990s resonates in the freedom of speech argument against pictorial warnings on cigarette packets in the United States today, and the idea that the freedom to smoke is a civil liberty. (see TobaccoTactics pages on Forest and on Privacy International).

Australian Astroturfing

Countering Tobacco Tactics, Action on Smoking and Health Australia

In August 2010, in a textbook example of astroturfing, a group called the Alliance of Australian Retailers (AAR) launched a media campaign against Australia's proposed new plain packs law. The AAR claimed to represent “the owners of your local corner stores, milk bars, newsagents and service stations” and wanted to “make the voices of small retailers heard, and to oppose plain packaging until it is overturned”.

However, leaked documents revealed that this was not a genuine grassroots campaign - on the contrary, it received funding from:[2]

Furthermore, Chris Argent of Philip Morris had regular input into the running of the AAR. Health groups launched an awareness-raising campaign under the banner “Guess who’s pulling the strings?”, as shown in the picture to the right.[3] [4] The AAR's astroturf campaign split retailers, with major supermarkets Coles and Woolworths repudiating the campaign and the Australian Association of Convenience Stores withdrawing from it.

For more detail, see the page on the Alliance of Australian Retailers and visit the Tobacco Control Research Group blog Big Tobacco Create Retail Group as a Disguise

Notes

  1. John Stauber, Smokers' Hacks: the Tobacco Lobby's PR Front Groups, PR Watch, 1994, volume 1, number 1, Third Quarter, accessed March 2012
  2. The Age, "Leaks reveal Big Tobaccos $5M blitz", 11 September 2010, accessed 7 June 2011
  3. Anne Jones and Stafford Sanders, Countering Tobacco Tactics, Action on Smoking and Health Australia, 2010, accessed 7 June 2011
  4. Action on Smoking and Health Australia, Latest news, August 2010, accessed 9 June 2011