Once upon a time, the beleaguered Brussels-based chemical industry giant called Solvay was sick and tired of all those big, bad environmentalists saying mean things about them. They didn’t like scientists criticizing what they were doing to the air, earth and water near their European chemical, plastics and pharmaceutical plants.
So Solvay set up their own agency called the GreenFacts Foundation to counter these mean things with some made-up nice things about the company. GreenFacts became what the Center for Media and Democracy described at the time as a front group.
Here’s how they define a front group like GreenFacts:
“A front group is an organization that purports to represent one agenda while in reality serving some other interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned – typically, a corporate or government sponsor.
“The tobacco industry is notorious for using front groups to create confusion about the health risks associated with smoking, but other industries use similar tactics as well. The pharmaceutical and health care industries use front groups disguised as patients’ rights advocates to market their products and to lobby against government policies that might affect their profits. Food companies, corporate polluters, politicians – anyone who has a message that they are trying to sell to a skeptical audience is tempted to set up a front group to deliver messages that they know the public will reject if the identity of the sponsor is known.”
When my brother, who holds a PhD in philosophy, was hired by Solvay to work for this quasi-green front group, the appointment raised a few eyebrows (well, among all of his siblings back here in Canada, at least).
When he showed off his slick glossy GreenFacts presentation material to me during one of his visits home to Canada, I looked very, very carefully for the Solvay name as funding sponsor. But it was nowhere to be found. Of course.
Turns out that such agencies, all fronts for Big Business, are not that uncommon.
For example, under the weighty name of Center for Consumer Freedom (run by Washington, DC-based PR whiz Rick Berman) are a number of other innocuous-sounding non-profits (also run by Berman on behalf of their corporate funders).
And just like GreenFacts, these are run as independent-sounding organizations; they don’t need to disclose the names of the corporations footing their bills. Berman runs at least 23 of these industry-funded non-profits, and holds 24 positions within these various entities.
For example, Berman is the PR brainiac behind:
- transfats.com – “Transfats have demonstrated beneficial health effects including fighting cancer”
- sunlightscam.com – where you’ll learn that tanning beds fight heart disease, and breast cancer, and stroke and osteoporosis – funded by the folks who make indoor tanning beds
- fishscam.com – “Tiny amounts of mercury in fish aren’t harmful at all” or how about “Pregnant women should eat more fish!” see also: mercuryfacts.org
- PETAkillsanimals.com – Yep, it’s apparently true – animal rights activists at PETA are really just animal killers, according to this group that promotes misinformation about animal cruelty
- American Beverage Institute – fights against drunk driving checkpoints and campaigns to relax drunk driving laws while attacking M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drug Drivers)
- sweetscam.com – my favourite! it’s meant to convince you that much-maligned high fructose corn syrup is actually good for you!
Over in Big Pharma, we have other examples of legitimate-sounding front groups set up by drug companies. For example, even with no payroll, no building and no offices, drug giant Merck’s wholly-owned non-profit, the Bone Measurement Institute, helped Merck boost annual sales of its osteoporosis drug Fosamax as high as $3.2 billion.
There apparently is no end to the non-profits one can legally set up to push your corporate agenda – especially if you have enough money to hire a PR heavyweight like Rick Berman.
Read this interview with Berman from the website Civil Eats, or check out some of his phony non-profits as described on the watchdog site called Berman Exposed, which is in turn run by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington – a group that sounds like it could actually be a front group itself, but apparently isn’t.