Manipulating public perception

How big tobacco gifted campaigns of misdirection and misinformation to the gun lobby

tobacco-1158679_1920In the late 1970s, the US tobacco industry was faced with a problem: it was no longer able to convincingly propagate the idea that cigarettes were good for you. It rightly supposed that this might lead to calls for anti-smoking legislation and, in anticipation, created an explicit doctrine: where a debate is unwinnable, change it.

The tobacco industry also recognised that if legislation led to even a 1% drop in annual revenues – self-calculated to be worth US$35 million in 1979 – then a “public information” campaign worth an unprecedented US$18 million was warranted if it might convince Congress not to legislate.

Such economics gave rise to a new wave of lobbying efforts. Corporations realised that traditional lobbying – useful as it was – was ineffective when governments proved stubborn, or even contrarian. The new lobbying no longer just targeted government, but was expanded to include the voting public.

Other industries took notice of tobacco’s efforts. These tactics still exist in lobbying today.

What the tobacco industry did

Tobacco industry groups began a series of “public information” campaigns. These took the form of paid “expert” testimony and opinion, sponsorship of “think-tanks”, the paradoxical “corporate social responsibility” (one of Milton Friedman’s greatest bugbears), and a little-understood phenomenon called “advocacy advertising”.

What made the late 1970s and 1980s different to previous decades was the shift in tone. Businesses once engaged in such campaigns in surprising ways – we would even consider them naïve today. Companies such as AT&T, Mobil Oil and General Motors ran earnest, overly long, paid op-eds in newspapers around the US that explained who they were, what was at issue (fairly accurately) and what their position was. To the general public, they were unreadable.

The tobacco industry – more than any other – changed this dramatically. It decided that it was far better to use advertising to sell, rather than convey, its message.

The tobacco industry’s campaigns were surprisingly successful. Despite a torrent of complaints about the dangers of smoking from the medical community, the public lobbying had shifted the grounds of the debate where typical, business-to-government lobbying could not.

No longer a health issue, smoking had become an individual rights one. The quickly building consensus against cigarette use was frustrated. It took a tremendous effort by anti-smoking groups to bring about gradual change, and even when the landmark Master Settlement Agreement of 1998 was signed, many critics saw the legislation as favouring the industry, and protecting it from future liability.

Shifting focus on gun control

In the 1970s, the National Rifle Association (NRA) also shifted its strategic focus. Advertisements became decidedly more political.

In part, this shift was due to the increased influence of the gun industry, as distinct from individual members of the public. The industry had begun to significantly contribute to the NRA and exercised disproportionate say in who filled key leadership positions.

The rhetoric of the NRA’s ads changed. It had always been a “sportsman’s organisation”, but was once devoted more to information and training. Its tone changed in 1970, slightly at first, telling readers that hunters’ rights were under threat by:

possibly well-intentioned, but ill-informed forces.

By the 1980s, having seen the success of campaigns that sought to distort rather than engage debates, the NRA further hardened its position. It decided that any attempt to limit gun rights was unacceptable. It has never again afforded gun-control advocates the dignity of being referred to as “well intentioned”. Post-1980 advertisements would portray such advocates as unpatriotic cowards who, if they succeeded in de-arming America, would lead to its demise.

Enter into the mix the NRA’s latest attempt to control the debate. In the wake of the Charleston church shootings, NRA magazine America’s 1st Freedom featured a story, Australia: There Will Be Blood.

The article rails against Australia’s gun laws, the most prominent of which were introduced following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. Such articles play an important role in the wider misinformation campaign against gun control. In this case, it forms the basis for claims – often made in NRA ads – that stringent gun laws lead to a worsening of crime.

Referring to US President Barack Obama’s recent comments on Australia’s laws, the NRA magazine concludes:

Australia’s is the gun-control regime that our president applauds for its decisive resolve. It robbed Australians of their right to self-defence and empowered criminals, all without delivering the promised reduction in violent crime. Australia’s gun confiscation is indeed a lesson to America: it is a sign of what is to come if we hold our rights lightly.

There’s a lot to disagree with in this quote (and the article). But the article’s importance is in what it does not engage with – why Australia actually introduced the laws.

Muddying the waters

It is clear, in viewing the NRA’s public information strategy, that fear is a key tool. The other tool – one even more powerful – is misdirection. The lessons from big tobacco have been well heeded: alter the nature of the debate until it is winnable, or at least not loseable. In some instances stalemate will do. If new information arises that shows an existing position to be wrong, move on to another.

* George Rennie is from the University of Melbourne. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the full article here.