Soaring Spirit with Tears


Viral Marketing

An article published by The Guardian on May 14 is entitled "The fake persuaders" and deals with a new PR phenomenon called "viral marketing", which is a lobbying technique that seems to work amazingly well in some cases. The article describes such a case in detail, see:

The following quote will give a general idea of this novel PR method:

Persuasion works best when it's invisible. The most effective marketing worms its way into our consciousness, leaving intact the perception that we have reached our opinions and made our choices independently. As old as humankind itself, over the past few years this approach has been refined, with the help of the internet, into a technique called "viral marketing". Last month, the viruses appear to have murdered their host. One of the world's foremost scientific journals was persuaded to do something it had never done before, and retract a paper it had published.

While, in the past, companies have created fake citizens' groups to campaign in favour of trashing forests or polluting rivers, now they create fake citizens. Messages purporting to come from disinterested punters are planted on listservers at critical moments, disseminating misleading information in the hope of recruiting real people to the cause. Detective work by the campaigner Jonathan Matthews and the freelance journalist Andy Rowell shows how a PR firm contracted to the biotech company Monsanto appears to have played a crucial but invisible role in shaping scientific discourse.

Monsanto knows better than any other corporation the costs of visibility. Its clumsy attempts, in 1997, to persuade people that they wanted to eat GM food all but destroyed the market for its crops. Determined never to make that mistake again, it has engaged the services of a firm which knows how to persuade without being seen to persuade. The Bivings Group specialises in internet lobbying.

An article on its website, entitled Viral Marketing: How to Infect the World, warns that "there are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organisation is directly involved... it simply is not an intelligent PR move. In cases such as this, it is important to first 'listen' to what is being said online... Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party... Perhaps the greatest advantage of viral marketing is that your message is placed into a context where it is more likely to be considered seriously." A senior executive from Monsanto is quoted on the Bivings site thanking the PR firm for its "outstanding work".

The particular story of this article is about contamination of native maize with pollen from genetically engineered plants in Mexico. The details are very revealing, and the same story is also told from a slightly different angle in The Scientist of April 29,

It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the evidence that the integrity of the scientific process is susceptible to corruption by smart PR work.

One example of a service which gives an impression of being independent yet is highly visible is the "junk science" website of Steven Milloy, His often well-timed show of debunking findings and opinions that represent a threat to powerful interests is frequently being distributed also by the Fox News Channel as news items. It is interesting that the mercury question (dental amalgams, and mercury as a preservative in vaccines) has just prompted Milloy to write a piece called "Mercury Ban Promotes Lawsuits, Not Health",3566,52391,00.html

Here Milloy clearly puts forward as his own the notoriously defensive message of the American Dental Association, where side effects of amalgam fillings are being flatly denied, with the single exception of very rare allergic reactions. The tone is arrogant, as is nearly always the case with this type of oversimplified message, which exploits the respect many people still tend to show those who appear to speak in the name of "sound science".





Poulsbo, Washington