Sunday, September 14, 2008
A corny discussion
This is a first for me. I'm doubling up a post on both my personal blog and my public relations class blog.
This is a post about the use of propaganda in public relations campaigns. And it's directly related to a mass-mediated commercial and a web site campaign that's been going on since the beginning on September.
Backstory: Readers of my gluten-free blog know I've made a concerted effort to eliminate high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) from my diet. My personal research has convinced me that this product is dangerous to the digestive tract, especially for those who are immuno-challenged, like I am. I based my decision on two things: First, I did research (including paper documents from non-biased nutritionists,) and Second, I did an elimination diet. I eliminated HFCS from my diet (even threw away my ketchup, bbq sauce, and salad dressings). I've also tried to give up my consumption of plain old corn syrup, but that is also difficult. But suffice it to say that this endeavor has made me all but give up Snickers bars, my favorite gluten-free treat. Finally, I discussed this at length with a medical professional I trust -- my gastroenterologist.
I have been troubled by and curious about a new campaign from the Corn Refiners Association that has been airing on television for the past several weeks. This persuasive campaign is designed to show the innocence of HFCS, with a cute couple discussing the safety of the ingredients. (You can find this video, and the other commercials, here. I recommend you watch so you'll see the message they send.
Yes, they want you to believe that HFCS is a Sweet Surprise. Over and over, the corn refiners association wants you to know that there is no caloric difference in HFCS and sugar. That there's no difference in HFCS and honey. And that HFCS is less expensive to use than sugar, honey, or molasses as a sweetner.
And to make sure you believe them, they back up their claims by doing survey research and sending out press releases.
For instance, consider the Press Release that suggests that a National survey* of Moms shows that Moms are more concerned about individual ingredients, rather than the "big picture" -- that kids still eat the wrong foods and don't exercise enough. The sponsor of the survey? The CRA. I immediately notices the *asterisk* by the word survey in the lead of the release. What did following that asterisk show? I quote:
*Wakefi eld, a national polling fi rm, conducted the survey between August 18 and August 25, 2008 using an email invitation and an online survey. Results were collected from a random sample of 400 mothers ages 18 and older. Quotas are set to ensure reliable and accurate representation of the total U.S. population.
If you don't know survey research, recognize this: A national survey that is invited and online is only going to get a certain kind of audience. And I highly doubt that they conducted a random sample of 400 mothers age 18 and over, especially if they set QUOTAS to ensure reliable representation of the U.S. population. In other words, it's a survey that generalizes to a large audience something tested only on a small one.
This is propaganda, from a group most attacked by a society that is giving up HFCS for healthier choices. It is a direct response to the film King Corn, which has raised awareness and concern about corn production in the United States. They've even created their own propaganda website that echos the information at Sweet Surprise. You'll find it on google -- under High Fructose Corn Syrup Facts. Read to the bottom! It's copyright the Corn Refiners Association!
Here's a funny thing about propaganda, though. It always contains a kernel (pun intended) of truth. For instance, yes, HFCS is cheaper to use than sugar, honey, or molasses. And yes, the press release is right -- some parents aren't seeing the forest for the trees when it comes to dietary issues for obese children. Many of their claims are in fact couched in truth.
But as is the case with most propaganda, it's the truth, but not the whole truth. Not completely.
One must read on to get a clearer picture. I read this site several months ago, and it convinced me that, FOR ME, high fructose corn syrup is a risk.
What I hope you're asking now is, "is that website also propaganda?" Is it the tool of a propaganda campaign from people who want to take down the Corn Refiners Association?
The point, and there is an important one here: Propaganda and persuasions are everywhere, about every single product in society. Public relations is an industry of persuasion and often, propaganda, and ALL public relation's communication to society is on behalf of a client. Someone out there is representing the Corn Refiners Association. Someone out there is representing the film King Corn.
And somewhere out there, there's the truth HFCS and its impact on the human digestive system.
The directive for all of us, as consumers, is caveat emptor. That applies to our consumption of ALL media, whether that media is selling popsicles or political candidates.
But what is the directive for those of us who are public relations practitioners? To quote Hamlet, "Ay, there's the rub." Must we believe in the clients we represent? Students, could you represent a client in whose stance or product you didn't believe?
We must always, always be aware of the source and motive of our information, whether we're on the receiving or disseminating end of it.
And remember, if you're not outraged, you're not paying attention!
Much love, and pay attention!