Corporate front groups can cause a "boomerang effect" to their sponsors, damaging the reputations of companies like ExxonMobil, Merck, and PepsiCo, when the sponsor's role in misrepresenting issues is widely revealed. Moreover, advance information or instruction can inoculate the public against deception, according to a new study published in the February 2007 issue of Communications Research.
CMD has exposed corporate and PR front groups for years -- see John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton's six books, not to mention Spin of the Day and SourceWatch. Now, and evidently for the first time, scholars have undertaken an experiment to show how people respond to and resent corporate manipulation.
The study, "The Influence of Corporate Front-Group Stealth Campaigns," should offer a message to companies: quit the fronting and put your name where you put your information. Otherwise it's disinformation. And to media: don't just give voice to commentators who are merely paid shills for industry. (Here's a recent example: Stateline.org, a publication of the Pew Charitable Trusts, wrote an article about efforts to promote healthier snack foods for kids that credulously described the Center for Consumer Freedom -- a front group for the restaurant/beverage industry -- as a "nonprofit coalition that seeks to protect consumer choice.") Instead of simply parroting front-group propaganda, journalists should explore and reveal their backing and affiliations.
In the Communications Research study, four professors from the University of Oklahoma-Norman -- Michael Pfau, Michel Haigh, Jeanetta Sims and Shelley Wrigley -- described the evolution of corporate public relations towards stealth and then ran that behavior through a track meet's worth of trials. They collected 204 impressionable students from introductory communications classes. The students possessed what the researchers regarded as "low involvement" on public policy matters -- similar to the general public. They positively cared about one or more of three selected issues -- wetlands development, controls on prescription drug prices under Medicare, and government efforts to reduce litter. But the students didn't know a whole lot about the issues.
The researchers considered the students "moderates" and found that they changed their views in favor of the front groups upon exposure to their campaign names and messages: "Front group stealth campaigns are effective in eroding public attitudes favoring federal efforts to restrict wetlands development, federal legislation to control prescription prices under Medicare, or government regulatory efforts to reduce litter."
The front groups carried deceptive names including, "National Wetlands Coalition," "Citizens for Better Medicare," and "Keep America Beautiful." Communications theorists have long argued that when people pay relatively little attention to issues, trust-provoking names can themselves manipulate the individual's beliefs.
The study showed that "inoculation," or forewarning subjects about front group presence, can create a more skeptical public. The study subjects were even more distrusting when they were informed (after the fact) that the information they had been receiving was sponsored by specific companies whose interests did not reflect the cheery, supportive titles of the front groups.
"The results indicate that exposure, which reveals the corporate sponsors and true motives of corporate front-group stealth campaigns, backfires, not only against efforts to shape the attitude object but also against the image, reputation, credibility and citizenship assessments of front groups and their corporate sponsors. In short, there is significant risk associated with front-group stealth campaigns, which sponsors ignore at their peril," the authors write.
What the study doesn't answer is why so many front groups continue to act "at their peril." One reason, Pfau surmised in an interview, may be that the news media rarely exposes front groups and their sponsors. (He noted that Stauber and Rampton's Toxic Sludge is Good for You (Common Courage Press, 1995), which exposes front group after group, helped inspire the study.) Pfau acknowledged that the study could not predict whether the "boomerang" effect would actually affect consumer behavior or predict how long negative perceptions will last. All the more reason for readers to jump onto SourceWatch to start writing about their own local front groups and community response to the groups' campaigns.