Until the last few decades, propaganda was something governments used for information or disinformation, to encourage the domestic population and to discourage the enemy. Perhaps the greatest propaganda film of all time was made by the German Leni Riefenstahl, in showing how hundreds of thousands of Germans adored Adolf Hitler. She also made an equally fascinating propaganda film about the Berlin Olympics in 1936, again showing the world the strength and dedication of those blond Nordic Germany young people. In World War II, Germany had Lord Haw Haw, a Briton now broadcasting for the Nazis, and the Japanese had Tokyo Rose, a Japanese -American who played recordings and bragged about the victories of Japan over America. We had (and have) The Voice of America, first aimed at the Axis, then at the Communist Nations, and now beamed to Cuba and Third World countries.
But that was war-time. Today, propaganda is used, especially in this country under the guise of Public Relations (PR) to state the case of industry versus government regulation, or one competitor versus another. Lobbyists, paid experts, also use one form of propaganda or another to encourage legislators to vote on bills favoring their clients.
Perhaps one of the most expensive pro- and con- campaigns in recent memory, still on-going, is the campaign by the tobacco industry, and by organizations using money won by states in anti-tobacco court suits.
The anchor points are well-defined: The anti-smoking organizations are out to either reduce the amount of smoking and smokers, or getting young people not to start in the first place. Big Tobacco is not overtly encouraging smoking, but they are making every effort to depict them as caring corporations, doing good for communities and not the manufacturers of death that the anti-smoking groups show them as being.
Among anti-smoking advertising is one outstanding TV ad which shows a grandfather watching his tiny grandson take his first steps. As he motions the little baby to waddle toward him, we see the baby literally walk through the old man. He isn’t there. The end message is “Be there. Stop smoking”.
The state of Georgia is now spending $6 million in an anti-tobacco campaign. “Source of funds: 1998 settlement with tobacco industry…(One) ad…shows teens piling body bags outside a Philip Morris office…” (Leith 2001 A.1)
For the most part, the anti-smoking campaigns are aimed at teens who may be thinking or who have just started smoking, The tobacco industry, while not legally permitted to solicit teens to smoke, continues to believe that the vast reservoir of new smokers will come from teens. The foundation is using teens not only to help actually create anti-smoking ads, but to develop target markets for the ads. “What is intended as the largest single national anti-smoking initiative….is sponsored by the American Legacy Foundation in Washington, which was financed by the recent $206 billion settlement reached by 46 states attorneys general and the tobacco industry…’We’re helping with marketing strat5egiesm what kinds of shows the commercials should be in, what kinds of shows should be avoided,’ said Jason Chase….a 17-year old high school senior who is among teenagers working on developing the initiative.” (Elliott 2000 C.6)
Teams of advertising agencies are working together on a number of anti-smoking campaigns, which “will include radio, print, and Internet ads with a particular focus on discouraging teen-agers from starting to smoke. The initial annual budget will be $150 million to $255 million, or 50 to 85% of the $300 million the foundation is to receive each year under terms ofg the settlement between Big Tobacco and the attorneys general.” (Elliott 1999 8)
Of course, the law of physics applies to propaganda and public relations: For every action, there is a reaction: the tobacco companies are not letting themselves be rolled over with anti-smoking campaigns. Philip Morris, the largest tobacco company in the world, is spending enormous sums not so much to encourage smoking, but to try to prove that it has a vital concern about the health and welfare of citizens. “During 1999 Philip Morris spent more than $60 million on things like hunger relief, domestic violence programs, and support of the fine arts, including some of the nation’s leading museums and dance companies…Leading the way are Philip Morris -sponsored television commercials touting the firm’s good deeds, under the slogan: ‘Working to Make a Difference. The people of Philip Morris.” (Dreyfuss 2000 20)
Philip Morris, with brands such as Marlboro that are perhaps the best known brands world-wide, is spending money to soften its image. “Beneficiaries of Philip Morris’ largesse say they have few qualms about taking money from America’s most vilified corporation.” (Dreyfuss 2000 20) The fact is that Philip Morris’ propaganda/public relations strategy is the core of its defense. “They’re buying silence….Citing Philip Morris’ contributions over the years to groups like the NAACP, the Urban League, the National Organization for Women, the National Council of La Raza, and many others,….many of them were either silent of provided testimony to Congress opposing tobacco-control legislation.” (Dreyfuss 2000 21)
This strategy makes Philip Morris “the nation’s #3 advertiser…(spending) more than $2 billion a year….undertaking an extensive expensive multimedia campaign meant to help burnish its corporate image.” (Elliott 1999 C.12:1) The corporation is trying hard to “buy respectability”, but “John Garrison, chief executive of the American Lung Association in new York, offered another reason for the ads, which he dismissed as ‘a smoke screen to fool the American people into thinking Philip Morris is a good corporate citizen’.” (Elliott 1999 C.12:1)
Of course, the other tobacco companies are chiming in with their own public relations campaigns. “Acknowledging that it can no longer keep a low profile, Lorillard Tobacco Co., has created its first external affairs department….the maker of Kent and Newport cigarettes says it wants to start telling more about its side of the story, something rival cigarette makers R. J. Reynolds and Philip Morris have done for years.” (Campbell 2000 8)
In addition to their attempt to show a kinder, gentler community face, the tobacco companies are also trying to provide some scientific rebuttal to smoking issues. One of them concerns the dangers of second-hand smoke. “The tobacco industry has attacked ‘junk science’ top discredit the evidence that second-hand smoke- among other environmental toxins- causes disease….Public health officials need to be aware that the ‘sound science’ movement is not an indigenous effort from within the profession to improve the quality of scientific discourse, but reflects sophisticated public relations campaigns by industry executives and lawyers whose aim is to manipulate the standards of scientific proof to serve the corporate interests of their clients.” (Ong 2001 1749)
In other words, pseudo-science masquerading as pure science to confuse issues and cast some doubt on the public health professionals whose warnings about issues like second-hand smoke may be diluted. This is propaganda at its currently highest form: Namely to dissuade, distract and cast doubt on facts provided by your enemies.
This is not a matter of providing propaganda for some national interest, but rather to preserve corporate profits. “Our” scientists don’t see it the way “your” scientists do, is the key here. And, if nothing else, it may well make some of the public wonder whether the government and public health officials simply have an axe to grind and that smoking, and second-hand smoke is not nearly as dangerous or fatal as has been demonstrated.
We have moved well beyond the orchestration of crowds in Nazi Germany, or striking coal miners in West Virginia or migrant farm workers living in desperate conditions. Instead, we have moved the propaganda wars from the miseries or the seeming superiority of a race or a nation to the defense of profitability. Joseph Goebbels, who was the Nazis’ minister of propaganda, once said that if you tell a lie often enough, people will begin to believe it. In the Tobacco wars, even as the CEOs of tobacco companies swore at a Congressional hearing that nicotine was NOT addictive, repeating some untruths, or stretching and bending facts to mean something other than they were intended to mean is an extension of Goebbels’ warning.
There can be no easy answer to the question of “who is winning this propaganda war”. While there may be fewer smokers, in terms of numbers, those who continue to smoke, are smoking more. There are more teens, especially teen-age girls, now smoking, and starting at an earlier age. They seem unfazed by the anti-smoking campaigns, strong and powerful as it may be. The image of The Marlboro Man and Joe Camel persist. Philip Morris’ profits are higher than ever. First of all, they also own Kraft Foods, but the fact is that the more the government awards damages to smokers and the various state attorneys-general get billions from Big Tobacco, the tobacco companies merely raise the price of cigarettes, so they really lose little or nothing in the long run. Their billboards and banners are still seen at many sporting events. Many store owners are not too diligent about checking juveniles for ID in order to purchase cigarettes. Retailers earn a tidy profit from the sale of cigarettes. They need no motivation to keep selling them, and to come down hard on the side of “freedom of expression”, continuing the debate about permitting advertising for tobacco products in the media.
Propaganda was never meant to be fair and offer both sides of an argument. The hundreds of millions of dollars spent on pro- and anti-smoking, or to burnish the images of tobacco companies merely enriches the media running or printing those ads. As mentioned earlier, if Philip Morris spends some $2 billion in advertising annually, do you think the various media who benefit from these ad and PR dollars are going to raise a loud voice for anti-smoking campaigns? In fact, “the trade publications, Advertising Age and Adweek reported that the networks had objected to commercial proposals for content-related reasons. There were concerns, for example, that one spot which showed a teen-ager actually smoking would glamorize what it was seeking to disparage.” (Elliott 2000 C.6)
Compared with the anti-smoking propaganda, the tobacco companies’ response and defense is far more subtle. They are not encouraging smoking, per se; they ar merely casting some doubt about the dangers of smoking, and, in turn saying that we are good citizens who would not do anything to harm our customers.
If propaganda can make Adolf Hitler look benevolent, it obviously can do the same for Big Tobacco. This is not a value judgment whether propaganda is “good” or “bad”, but merely realizing that professionals can turn straw into gold, given the right approach and finding the right target markets. Propaganda is a field of communications experts, “spinmeisters” and those who know how to spend money where is will be the most effective.
Campbell, D.: Lorillard to start showing public face” Greensboro NC: The Business Journal, vol. 2, i. 48 Aug 4, 2000, pp 8-9
Dreyfuss, R.: (Philip Morris money” Princeton NJ: TheAmerican Prospect, vol. 11, i. 10, March 27, 2000, pp 20-22
Elliott, S.: “‘Youth’ rhymes with ‘Truth’, and both are central to a big new national campaign against smoking: New York: New York TIMES, Feb 4, 2000, p C.6
Elliott, S.: “Tired of being a villain, Philip Morris works on its image” New York: New York TIMES, Nov. 11, 1999, p. C.12:1
Elliott, S.: “Arnold Communications is leading what may be the biggest campaign against smoking” New York: New York TIMES, Sept. 16, 1999, p 8
Leith, S.: “Georgia prepares to launch $6 million anti-tobacco campaign” Atlanta GA: The Atlanta Constitution, Feb. 6, 2001, p. A.1
Ong, E.K. and Glantz, S.A.: “Constructing ‘sound science’ and ‘good Epidemiology’: Tobacco, lawyers and public relations firms” Washington DC: American Journal of Public Health, vol., 91, i. 11, pp 1749-1757, Nov., 2001