Monday, January 22, 2007

Trojan consumers...

There is a trend in public debate to create a "consumer advocacy" group out of thin air. I suppose there is something authentic seeming about "grassroots" opinions. So now, it has become common in public relations for corporate and political campaigns to quietly organize, fund, and even prop up dupes to pose as the "grass". The trendy term for such fronts is "astroturfing"

Some examples:
  • Here in Illinois (Rex Grossman for President!) we about to start paying full price for electricity after a mandated freeze. Politicians are sorting themselves out and a helpful "consumer" group has emerged to inform the public about this proposed rate hike.
The commercial, in a foreboding tone, suggests that the lights may go out in Illinois if an electricity rate freeze is extended.

"We don't need a California-style energy crisis in Illinois," cautions a voice representing Consumers Organized for Reliable Electricity.

It may sound like the campaign of a grass-roots consumer group, but it is not.

Consumers Organized for Reliable Electricity gets most of its money from ComEd. CORE, as it is known, is a group of organizations and executives, many with ties to ComEd or the utility industry.

But ComEd's name is nowhere to be seen as the voice-over raises the specter of the disaster to come if the Illinois legislature extends the freeze on electricity rates next week. The commercial has been running on television stations around the state in recent weeks, and full-page ads have been placed in newspapers. [More]

  • In New York, PETA is being attacked by a similar "consumer group"

There's a very public PR campaign (full page ads in today's New York Times, billboards in Times Square) attacking PETA. Click on their website and hit about us, and you'll find a link. Two more clicks and you find:

The Center for Consumer Freedom is supported by restaurants, food companies and more than 1,000 concerned individuals. From farm to fork, our friends and supporters include businesses, employees and consumers.

The Wikipedia article sheds a bit more light, pointing out that a cigarette company was the initial sponsor of the group and that fast food restaurants are funders as well. Millions of dollars worth of funding from a few giant corporations. [More]

While I'm not crying for PETA, the tactic stinks.The happy part is thanks to search engines, anyone can find out who these groups really are. So when I link to a site and wonder where their info comes from and who is punching the buttons, I always start with the "About Us" page. I also like to Google board members and check financial reports.

As for this doubtful source, I get paid by FJ Media to write this drivel and these opinions and words are my very own (not counting the stuff I stole outright or was too lazy to link).

They aren't that easy to think up either.


brian said...

While I agree that full disclosure would be better, it is certainly understandable why these groups attempt to hide their identity. The greater issue is the way we look at arguments based upon who makes them.

It has become commonplace for public debate to degenerate into namecalling and other ad hominem techniques. In this environment, any validating characteristic of an argument, such as empiric evidence or air-tight logic, is lost to an impugning of the motives of the presenter. And yet no presenter is perfect, and pure motives do not necessarily a good policy make.

Here is an essay on the subject, in the context of economics, but applicable to so much of what passes for discourse today:

Can't we all just get along?

John Phipps said...

Brian: Certainly focusing on what is said would seem to move us toward the best solutions, regardless of who the speaker is. This presupposes that our prefrontal cortex is operating logically.

But as recent evidence suggests it is very hard for our brains to disconnect the speaker and the message. Both Myers (Intuition) and Gilbert (Stumbling on Happiness) describe the connivance of our PFC with the deeper, older brain. For very sound evolutionary reasons we ascribe motive and parse incoming information immediately and surprisingly accurately, but in concert with emotions of kinship or familiarity.

This is precisely why PR campaigns piggy-back on persuasive imagery. It is also why the line should be drawn IMHO as close to transparency as possible.

The corrosive atmosphere of public discourse is lamentable, but is scarcely a reason to grant artificial entities like corporations cover from scrutiny, especially when individuals have less than ever. (See Google, NSA, et. al.)

If a power company cannot persuade in their true guise, is it the fault of their critics or the accumulated costs of previous actions? Some organizations have managed to maintain credibility or respect (Apple, I think could fall in this category).

Separating speaker from message in the cases I cited adds one more layer of disassociation from responsibility, which could actually be contributing to the coarseness. Identifying the true composition of groups seems to me a minor detriment to the tenor of debate.

brian said...

I would take your argument in the comments above, with your first sentence as thesis, as favoring opacity rather than transparency.

Corporations have no advantage over individuals in the scrutiny department, via Google, NSA, or otherwise.

Certainly the ethos of Aristotelian rhetoric is still valid, but only as it informs the logos. We are losing our ability to even consider wisdom because of the super-sensitive cynicism of the age. Smirking is rewarded and sincerity is laughed off the stage. So corporations are adopting the cynical approach - no surprise there.

Unknown said...

I like your humor about the things you write. Self effacement by columists is usually hilarious.
The thing that I think TV has taken away is the ability to laugh. Why in the world do sit coms need canned laugher---to help us to know when to laugh??

John Phipps said...

Brian: I am unwilling to grant artificial life-forms like corporations the same rights as actual humans. They were created to avoid personal liability after all.

Thomas: There is a well-known phenomenon of laughter that people need to hear it around them to laugh themselves. As someone who uses humor (with varying results) in my speeches, I love to see a small room packed rather than a big room with scattered listeners. TV laugh tracks help people laugh at home.

Besides, I thought I was writing in dead earnest...