Powerful corporations often set up fake “institutes” and programs that sound like independent foundations promoting the public good—when in fact they’re just the opposite. Here are four examples. (This article was first published in Uncle John’s Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader.)
The documentary film An Inconvenient Truth received a lot of attention and attracted huge audiences when it was released in May 2006. The film argues that global warming caused by industrial pollution is slowly altering the Earth’s climate and melting the polar ice caps, and will eventually flood major cities and leave the planet uninhabitable.
But shortly after the movie came out, “public service” commercials began appearing on TV, calling global warming a myth and claiming that carbon dioxide—a byproduct of industrial pollution and automobile emissions (and the “villain” of the movie)—is actually not a pollutant at all, because “plants breathe it.” They went on to say that industrial waste is not only harmless, it’s essential to life.
So who made the “public service” ads? A think tank called the Competitive Enterprise Institute, whose members are almost exclusively oil and automobile companies, including Exxon, Arco, Ford, Texaco, and General Motors
Chemicals Are Cool!
In 1997 students in hundreds of high schools across America got a few hours off from class to attend “Chem TV.” Supposedly designed to get kids excited about chemistry and science, it was a traveling multimedia extravaganza featuring loud music, videos, lasers, games, skits, dancers, free T-shirts, a huge set with giant TV screens, and a cast of enthusiastic performers. Educational? Sort of. Chem TV (meant to sound like “MTV”) said it was about chemistry, but it was really about the chemical industry. It was part of a million-dollar public relations campaign by Dow Chemical—one of the world’s biggest polluters—to help change their image. Dow had a controversial history: It supplied napalm and Agent Orange to the government during the Vietnam War, and lawsuits over faulty breast implants nearly bankrupted the company in 1995. Critics charged that the Chem TV presentations were misleading (in one example, an actor took off his clothes to demonstrate that “your entire body is made of chemicals”). Chem TV didn’t differentiate between a chemical (a man-made, often toxic combination of ingredients) and an organic compound (molecules that fuse together naturally—like water). Despite the criticism, the program toured schools for three years and won numerous awards. (And it was tax exempt because it was “educational.”)
In May 1998, the federal government filed a lawsuit against Microsoft, accusing the software giant of monopolistic behavior. In June 1999, the Independent Institute, a California-based legal think tank, ran full-page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post that staunchly defended Microsoft. In the form of an open letter (signed by 240 “economists”), it stated that prosecuting Microsoft would hurt consumers and weaken the economy. What exactly is the “Independent Institute”? It’s not independent at all. Though its mission statement says it is “dedicated to the highest standards of independent scholarly inquiry,” in 1998 it had exactly one source of funding: Microsoft.
Junk Food = Fitness
The American Council for Fitness and Nutrition was formed in 2003 to combat the United States’ growing obesity problem. At least that’s what they said. Shortly after its formation, the Council held a press conference to announce its latest findings: Contrary to numerous government and medical studies, they reported, too much fast food and vending machines filled with junk food did not make children fat. Turns out the ACFN’s interest in childhood obesity is purely business related. The ACFN is actually a lobbying group…for snack-food makers and fast-food restaurants. Its members include Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Sara Lee, Pepsi, Nestle, McDonald’s, Hershey, Coca-Cola, and the Sugar Association.