Democracies Under Pressure. Authoritarianism, Repression, Struggles

The articles

Regulating Corporate Political Influence on Public Opinion

, by FOSSARD Renaud

It is an established fact that a few thousand corporations are the dominant oligopolies in many economic sectors. [1] These actors, obviously powerful on the industrial, commercial, and financial level, are also structures developing wide-ranging influence activities, seconded by an industry specializing in communication and public relations.

They deploy large-scale influence activities on the commercial level, getting rid of stocks of obsolescent products, sustaining a situation of overproduction, and maintaining double-digit ROI. [2] They also use influence activities on the political level, to protect their business model: limiting regulation of their activities and the markets in which they operate. These activities, aimed precisely at the actors of the political and normative decision-making process, are generally grouped under the term “lobbying.”

For members of the profession, lobbying is merely sharing expertise in consultation with public authorities. But no one doubts that corporations influence decision-makers much more proactively and establish eminently political strategies, including “revolving door” hiring of former decision-makers and high-ranking civil servants to benefit from their connections.

In any case, the way lobbying is perceived remains focused on political influence directly targeting government institutions. And yet, in the process of making political decisions, some dynamics go well beyond the institutional microcosm, in which media, science, social movements, and public opinion play a significant and even decisive role.

Over the past few years, the public has become aware of corporations’ aggressively manipulative strategies, whether by casting doubt on science or by impersonating NGOs to engage with decision-makers. But the analysis of contemporary corporate methods of political influence must be broadened to include strategies directed towards public opinion through the manipulation of journalists but also, more or less explicitly, through advertising. According to Joshua Adel, former head of the lobbying department of the TBWA advertising group, “For us, advertising is a standard means of political lobbying whose aim is to win the ‘culture war’—and not merely through amendments.” [3]

Beyond specific influence campaigns, and considering all the tools of corporate communications and discussions of corporate social responsibility (CSR), isn’t big business engaged, more fundamentally, in a permanent culture war against any kind of regulation of its activities? Shouldn’t the financial importance of advertising to the media be considered another significant lever of political influence?

Enhancing the diagnosis of contemporary corporate political influence campaigns was one of the purposes of the report Big Corpo. Encadrer la pub et l’influence des multinationales : un impératif écologique et démocratique, published June 2020, from which the following developments are drawn. [4] This analysis aims at envisioning reforms to draw up appropriate limitations on corporate political communication.

Illustration from the report “Big Corpo. Encadrer la pub et l’influence des multinationales : un impé-ratif écologique et démocratique”. RSE and lobbying. Credits : Lucien Ledan / www.communication-utilite-publique.fr (Copyright Osama Jeljeli)

Aggressive strategies to manipulate science and NGOs revealed at last

The Merchants of Doubt, published in the United States in 2010, [5] as well as the Monsanto Papers of 2017, played a decisive role in revealing to a mass audience the strategies used by corporations to build up scientific controversy. As it happens, when high-risk products are central to their economic model, companies invest in operations aimed at falsifying scientific evaluation by the government in order to obtain or retain authorization to sell them.

The issue recently inspired a Hollywood drama, Dark Waters, recounting how DuPont covered up the danger of Teflon, whose toxic perfluorooctanoic acid molecule (PFOA) may now be found in 99% of human bodies.

Conglomerates from every scientifically contentious sector are involved, far beyond the infamous example of Big Tobacco. [6] Powerful operations like the International Life Sciences Institute, funded by Monsanto, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and others, have offshoots in dozens of countries and annual budgets in the millions. But the methodology is now commonly recognized: basically, “in-house science” is produced, biased but conforming to “standard clinical practice”; its results are then published in a sufficient number of articles, signed by strawmen, until it manages to shatter consensus in the “regulatory science” on which political decisions are based.

These strategies, aiming to distort decision-makers’ perception of reality, are not limited to the scientific field. There is also “astroturfing”: the creation of fake grassroots organizations to defend corporate interests in the name of citizens (and “consumers”).

Sophie Boulay, who has spent the last ten years researching the subject, explains that these tactics are “doubly harmful to democracy, not only because they undermine the credibility of genuine citizens’ speech, but also because, ultimately, they succeed in influencing public opinion and […] a law, a regulation, a budget, or a project.” [7]

Developed in a small way during the 1970s by the tobacco, oil, and pharmaceutical industries, which created citizens’ coalitions (sometimes lavishly paid-off, sometimes merely deceived), astroturfing has become a recognized influence tactic in marketing literature since the 2000s. The phenomenon assumed a new scale with the rise of social media. The sociologist Sylvain Laurens, who studied the influence of astroturfing in the European Union’s decision-making centers in Brussels, warns against companies’ financial investment in these strategies, which will “quickly favor the rise of new techniques imitating even more cunningly the militant activism of classic NGOs.” [8]

Astroturfing by media or advertising to influence public opinion

Directly targeting decision-makers through institutional lobbying or astroturfing limited to the Brussels sphere may prove insufficient, if political roadblocks are due to disinterest or opposition by public opinion. In this context, corporate spin doctors, i.e. strategic communicators, depend on media manipulation to send messages to decision-makers or directly influence public opinion through stealth advertising campaigns.

Some may remember the media impact of demonstrations by peasants from developing countries during the 2002 Earth Summit, making Johannesburg ring with slogans such as “Say no to Eco-imperialism,” “Greens: stop hurting the poor,” and “Biotechnology for Africa.” The role in these movements of GMO industries, headed by Monsanto, was not revealed until later… [9] The operation facilitated direct influence of decision-makers in situ using international media, while at the same time opening a long-term campaign on international public opinion.

In France, more recently, the same method was used in the issue of Sunday store openings, which institutional lobbying had failed to push through. Don’t forget the mobilization of “Sunday DIYers” in 2013, when Leroy Merlin and Castorama employees demonstrated for the “freedom” to work Sundays. The role of the influence agency leading this operation, presenting a neoliberal reform as a blow for freedom, was documented later, but the main television news programs seized upon the subject immediately, and the government was not slow to respond. Two years later, a liberalizing reform of Sunday working hours was implemented.

Astroturfing strategies to influence public opinion may also use advertising —buying space— when the real identity of the advertiser is concealed. In 2018, seven advertising campaigns funded by the American Petroleum Institute were published on Facebook and Twitter under the names of shell groups such as Energy4us, Energy Nation, and Explore Offshore Coalition. They targeted Internet users individually, arguing that natural gas could combat the effects of climate change, that offshore extraction did not affect tourism, that a vote for energy was a vote for jobs, etc. [10]

Political advertising, a basic tool in “360° lobbying”

In political influence, advertising does not need to go undercover —or at least, not completely. Buying advertising space is costly, but it offers a guarantee of total control over the message, which may thus be precisely calibrated and fully claimed by the corporation.

Some advertising campaigns are explicit as to the political dimension of their message: wide public distribution of specific points, as in a position paper, pressures the decision-makers who oppose the interests of those who commissioned the campaign. In October 2012, two fast food giants influenced public opinion with advertising campaigns of this type, launched only a few days apart. McDonald’s, with an advertisement entitled “Encore un petit effort M. Thévenoud,” pressured a deputy who resisted lowering restaurant VAT, while the Ferrero group, with its “Nutella, parlons-en” campaign, appealed to public opinion in opposing a bill on palm oil surtax.

In fact, the phenomenon is more common than it appears. Just recently, in France, the advertising industry itself did not stop at institutional lobbying to fight a bill relative to the Citizens’ Convention on Climate, with its possible bans on advertisements for SUVs and other polluting products. In early October 2020, the main advertising lobbies bought full pages in the influential Journal du Dimanche and other daily papers to publish their “editorial” entitled “Avant d’interdire” [Before Banning].

The legitimacy of these “360° lobbying” operations, based on explicitly political advertising campaigns, must be discussed. But these overt episodes should not blind us to another, more subtle reality of corporate political influence: their public discourse, permanently engaged in an ideological and cultural war.

The permanent culture war: corporate communication and CSR versus government intervention

Corporate communication, of which corporate advertising is one aspect, is different from commercial communication (which sells products); its messages concern the identity and values of the company itself. Corporate discourse is mostly focused on the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), the social and environmental commitments made regarding their products, chain of production, and entire economic model.

After influence struggles around the concept of sustainable development in the 1990s, CSR was structured as an alternative, communicational in nature, to the possibility of genuine corporate legal responsibility for harm caused by corporate activities. [11] In other words, the public expression of (non-binding) commitments to respect human rights, labor, and the environment would avoid governmental (and binding) oversight of these issues. Thenceforth, big business multiplied its commitments in “codes of conduct” and invested in communication towards the public and decision-makers on these matters.

In this context, around the turn of the millennium, corporate communication was born: a far-reaching internal reorganization of big business’s communication operations. Marketing departments, with their creative staff and large advertising budgets, were consolidated with public relations and lobbying into super-divisions, headed by communication directors with seats on company boards. Corporations integrated commercial and political influence strategies directed to all publics, from consumers to government decision-makers.

Certainly, corporate communication, and, at its heart, CSR discourse, entails a highly political dimension. [12] Putting their social and environmental initiatives (including philanthropy) in the limelight, corporations seek not only to appeal to “consumers as actors,” they also aim to influence the terms of debate for public opinion in order to disqualify in advance any future government interventions to regulate their activities. Corporate advertising may take a central place in strategies of deeper-seated ideological influence, strikingly illustrated by Total’s recent “Committed to Better Energy” campaign. [13]

Launched a few days before COP20 with an event-based strategy entitled “Total University,” the petro-giant initially publicized its “in-house science” (indicating that energy transition would be long and fossil fuel use would continue), while at the same time publishing a heartwarming photo of its CEO beside Christiana Figueres, an important figure in the UN’s climate change effort. Then, for a year and up to the last weeks of COP21 negotiations in Paris, several waves of advertising campaigns were launched throughout G20 countries targeting, in particular, “decision-makers and opinion leaders.” An in-depth analysis of campaign materials shows Total presenting itself as a leader in solar energy and positioning “natural” gas, a fossil fuel, as a solution for energy transition.

In March 2019, the NGO Influence Map published a report indicating that the five largest publicly-traded oil and gas majors (including Total) had spent a billion dollars on lobbying and “climate-branding” activities since the COP21 summit. [14] Nearly 200 million dollars were invested in communication campaigns “aimed at convincing stakeholders they are on board with ambitious action on climate” through “messaging deemphasizing climate regulation while stressing voluntary action and low-carbon investments.”

These politically-targeted corporate advertising campaigns generally buy space in traditional media. Therefore, the broader question of the role of these media in the culture war must also be addressed.

The issue of media funded by advertisers

If a powerful advertiser controls, through purchasing space, a significant part of mass media’s financial resources, that may constitute an additional means of political influence.

The more fundamental effects of advertising-based financial support of the media are worth examining further, given their impact on democracy. [15] But, to focus on more direct political issues, major advertisers influence the handing of sensitive subjects through mechanisms of editorial censorship and, especially, self-censorship. Media blackmail through advertising budget, although its mention is taboo in the profession, is not uncommon. [16]

In France, during the last decade alone, the publication of investigative reports by Le Monde, Libération, La Tribune, and M6 brought about the withdrawal of advertising funding by LVMH, EDF, McDonalds, and KFC. Additionally, France Télévision was threatened with such withdrawals in 2017 due to its hit program “Cash Investigation”; in 2015, local newspapers were similarly pressured by Volkswagen to withhold information on Dieselgate.

These overt clashes, while rare, establish a more permanent kind of self-censorship among editors and journalists. In the United Kingdom, the Daily Telegraph lost advertising funding from the banking group HSBC in 2012-13 after investigating one of its Jersey subsidiaries. In February 2015, the paper’s star columnist resigned, stridently denouncing the “coverup” of Swissleaks to protect advertising budgets. A few days later, HSBC’s chief executive publicly announced his intention to apply financial penalties for “hostile articles.” In 2020, the influential British paper The Guardian renounced fossil fuel industry advertising in order to “expand its climate change coverage.”

Towards regulation of corporate political communication?

The question of regulating lobbying activities is currently under examination by specialized organizations. The issue of transparency has been raised by recent political reforms in France and Brussels. [17] But the way lobbying is approached, is still generally based on a narrow understanding of political influence.

In its 2018 report, Corporate Capture in Europe, the international network of NGOs monitoring lobbying shows, through eight case studies, the ability of certain companies to genuinely “capture” the process of institutional and political decision-making. We hope to contribute to this effort by analyzing the methods and role of influence on public opinion, particularly through advertising, and by discussing concrete proposals to better regulate these activities.

In the United States, where associations like PR Watch monitor a far wider range of influence methods than lobbying alone, the question of reporting on corporate soft power activities is included in legislation overseeing transparency in lobbying. [18] Why, in France, are companies not required to include all communication activities related to political influence—press relations, corporate advertising, digital outreach, opinion studies, sponsorship, etc.—in their declaration of interest representation expenses to the Haute Autorité pour la Transparence de la Vie Publique? [19]

Any ambitious approach to regulating corporate political influence should also include measures against social or environmental image laundering. The progress awaited in the cases of Auchan and Samsung, now on trial in France for deceptive commercial practices due to the shortfall between their codes of conduct and their subsidiaries’ human rights violations, will show whether the judiciary is able to adapt jurisprudence appropriately and/or whether it is necessary for the legislature to step in by establishing a more fitting legal apparatus.

At the institutional level, NGOs also demand an independent authority to regulate advertising and marketing in order to prevent their encouraging overconsumption and waste. This authority should specifically address CSR discourse regarding products. Could it not also regulate the corporate discourse of these companies? This could be a mandate, complementary to the judgment of the court, to penalize deceptive practices and ensure that multinationals whose parent companies are incorporated in France respect their duty of care.

Finally, the question of advertisers’ political influence on media should be addressed. The cherished French system of government press subsidies offers significant opportunities, particularly the possibility—currently underexploited—of tying certain subsidies to ceilings on advertising revenue. [20] But the more specific question of mass media’s dependency on certain major advertisers might be addressed by requiring that each publication’s portfolio of advertisers be distributed in such a way that no single advertiser is of disproportionate financial or influential importance.

In a society where information and communication flows constantly increase and too often are indistinguishable, corporate communication, whether commercial or political, should be subject to solid normative oversight. The fight to regulate communication activities will be part of the general renewal of our democratic systems in the coming decade and, more directly, the multiplication of victories in the political and cultural struggle for climate justice.

Notes

[1The 2011 reference study by the Institut Fédéral de Zurich shows that among some 50,000 highly interconnected multinational corporations, some 15,000 generate 95% of the sector’s total revenue. Stefano BATTISTON, James B. GLATTFELDER and Stefania VITALI, “The Network of Global Corporate Control,” PLoS ONE 6(10): e25995, 2011.

[2Big business spent over 1.3 trillion dollars globally in 2019 for promotional products and marketing. The methods of short-circuiting the consumer’s critical intelligence and the macroeconomic impact of commercial communication are well documented. Source: Big Corpo. See : Les Amis de la Terre, Communication Sans Frontières, Résistance à l’Agression Publicitaire, Big Corpo. Encadrer la pub et l’influence des multinationales : un impératif écologique et démocratique. May 2020; Chapters 2 and 6.

[3Joshua ADEL, « La publicité, l’autre pays du lobbying », Médiapart, blog post published April 16, 2013.

[4This report, also known as the “Big Corpo report” (see below) and its conclusions, are freely accessible online at sp-im.org.

[5Erik CONWAY and Naomi ORESKES, Les Marchands de doute (Paris: Le Pommier, collection « Essais et documents », 2012).

[6The many investigations of the subject identify Dow Chemicals and Bayer-Monsanto for chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and pesticides; Coca-Cola and Nestlé for food and sugar; L’Oréal for cosmetics; and Exxon, Mobil BP, and Total for fossil fuels.

[7Pierre-Etienne CAZA, « A bas l’astroturfing ! », Actualités UQAM, article published March 31, 2015. Link: https://www.actualites.uqam.ca/2015/astroturfing-identite-citoyenne-Sophie-Boulay

[8Sylvain LAURENS, « Astroturfs et ONG de consommateurs téléguidées à Bruxelles. Quand le business se crée une légitimité « par en bas » », Critique internationale 2015/2 (N° 67), 2015, p. 98.

[9Jonathan MATTHEWS, “Biotech’s Fake Persuaders,” in Thinker, Faker, Spinner, Spy: Corporate PR and the Assault on Democracy (London: Pluto Press, 2007): 117-137.

[10Jeremy B. MERRILL, “How Big Oil Dodges Facebook’s New Ad Transparency Rules,” ProPublica, article published November 1, 2018.

[11In the beginning, “sustainable development,” described in the 1987 report Our Common Future and officialized at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, prioritized present and future populations and their environment over business. After ten years of a war of influence, at the 2002 Johannesburg Earth Summit it was translated into French as développement durable (durable [not sustainable] development) and referred merely to the “harmonious” development of the 3 Ps: “People, Planet, Profit.”

[12Irina LOCK and Peter SEELE (2017a), “Politicized CSR: How corporate political activity (mis‐)uses political CSR,” Journal of Public Affairs, 2017.

[13See Renaud FOSSARD, Le rôle de la communication corporate dans les stratégies de communication et d’influence. Le cas de Total et la campagne « Commited to a better energy ». Master’s thesis, CELSA, 2016.

[14Influence Map, 2019. “Big Oil’s Real Agenda on Climate Change. How the Oil Majors Have Spent 1 Billion Since Paris on Narrative Capture and Lobbying on Climate.”

[15Research shows that financial support by advertising favors media concentration, content duplication, and buzz over analysis, as well as editorial orientation towards the middle of the political chessboard. Similarly, media dependency on advertisers normalizes joint operations between editorial staff and brands, ranging from “native advertising” (promotional content styled like an editorial article) to the insidious adaptation of media forms and practices to advertising, a phenomenon known in France as publicitarisation. For more information see « Big Corpo », 2020. Chapter 5, Section 1.

[16See « Big Corpo »: 75-76.

[17Current registers of “interest representatives” in France, maintained by the Haute Autorité de Transparence pour la Vie Publique (HATVP) since 2013, are insufficient, as are mechanisms to prevent conflict of interest, but these subjects are, in any event, the object of struggles to strengthen regulation.

[18See the Lobbying Disclosure Act or 1995 and the Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007.

[19The objective of campaigns, whether commercial or aimed at political decisionmakers and an effect on the normative framework, is determined by the company that commissions them, both internally and in a brief given to agencies. If a company tries to disguise this objective, it risks being taken to court by the HATVP and subsequent penalties.

[20Currently, only aide directe au pluralisme—about 15 million euros out of 80 million in total direct aid—is based on this criterion, with a maximum of 25% of financing by advertising. Combined with the criterion determining the status of an entreprise de presse—requiring that no more than 2/3 of the publication’s space be devoted to advertising, and which should be raised to the symbolic limit of 50%—the result should allow the concentration of overall advertising support to the press on more independent media.

Commentaires

Renaud Fossard is the coordinator of the SPIM programme (Système publicitaire et influence des multinationales – System of Marketing and Corporate Influence), which brings together civil society and academics in order to analyse corporate communication. He is the author of the report Big Corpo. Encadrer la pub et l’influence des multinationales : un impératif écologique et démocratique, published in June 2020. For more information, see: sp-im.org