How to set up your own phony non-profit as a front for Big Business

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.

See also: Why Industry Lobbyists and Pseudo-Scientists Insist That the “Meat and Butter Diet” Is Good For Us

© 2010 The Ethical Nag: Marketing Ethics For The Easily Swayed

7 thoughts on “How to set up your own phony non-profit as a front for Big Business

  1. Pingback: Brainwatch

  2. Great post! I hadn’t heard of transfats.com. Yeesh. Over at ReportingonHealth.org, an online community and resource site for journalists and other folks interested in media coverage of health, investigative reporter Jeanne Lenzer discusses how to uncover similar stealth marketing campaigns:

    Barbara Feder Ostrov
    Deputy Editor, ReportingonHealth.org

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  3. As a former Solvay employee, I can tell you that these ‘front group’ comments about GreenFacts are completely true. According to the watchdog agency SourceWatch, which on at least two occasions has publicly cited GreenFacts for its questionable reporting due to clear conflict of interest transgressions, the official GreenFacts Digest publication is a prime example of what a good front group tries to do on behalf of its stakeholders.

    SourceWatch investigators quote the Digest on climate change, for example: “Although most scientists agree with the IPCC report, some organisations express skepticism towards certain conclusions regarding uncertainties, human influence, adverse consequences or actions needed.” And in spite of the official disclaimer “GreenFacts takes no position concerning the views expressed in the linked documents” – ALL of the Digest links are to those critical of the IPCC for taking global warming too seriously. It does not include any links to websites that argue in support of the science behind climate change.”

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  4. “…There apparently is no end to the non-profits one can legally set up to push your corporate agenda…” = Brilliant marketing. Every corporation should have one of these. NOT…

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  5. So right, Ms Nag!
    There are many great non-profits out there but there are also many rotten apples in the barrel to make me suspicious/skeptical.

    One of the ones that I had to become familiar with was FAIM (Foundation for the Advancement of Integrated Medicine). It has now disappeared except for the wayback machine but a lot of ‘Baby FAIMs’ have been popping up—- many with the same cast. In FAIM’s mission statement was this sentence:

    “FAIM’s mission is to secure free choice in healthcare.”

    Sounds great, right? Think again. It was established in order to provide supplement manufactures and sellers a high-sounding motive.

    But FAIM and DSHEA have combined to make the supplement industry a very loose and sometimes dangerous combination.

    “Unfortunately, lenient regulatory oversight of dietary supplements, combined with the FDA’s lack of resources, has created a marketplace in which manufacturers can introduce hazardous new products with virtual impunity. Although manufacturers have since 2007 been required to report serious supplement-related adverse events to the FDA, the great majority of the estimated 50,000 adverse events that occur annually remain unreported”.

    See also: American Roulette — Contaminated Dietary Supplements

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    • Thanks Cave for the link to this New England Journal of Medicine article: “The majority of consumers believed that dietary supplements are approved by a government agency, and two thirds thought that the government requires that labels on supplements include warnings about their potential side effects and dangers.” This is frightening!

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