Ten Grassroots Lessons From Monsanto's Swift-Boating of the Prop37/Label GMO Campaign

Our consumer movement made the costly mistake of arming itself with peace signs and love beads for what turned out to be a gunfight with a ruthless, assault rifle-equipped enemy.
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The populist campaign to label genetically modified food has been successfully swift-boated by Monsanto and the largest pesticide and junk food companies on earth. Our consumer movement made the costly mistake of arming itself with peace signs and love beads for what turned out to be a gunfight with a ruthless, assault rifle-equipped enemy.

What can we do about it? We can learn from our mistakes for the next necessary round in our struggle for food safety and environmentally responsible agriculture. Ronnie Cummins, the fiery head of the Organic Consumer's Association (the top fund collector for California's Prop 37 to label GMO's), made it clear that when it comes to GMO labeling, citizens are not giving up. "Dirty money and dirty tactics may have won this skirmish," Cummins said, "but they will not win the war."

The big problem that we, the American People, now have is that big money has come to dictate political speech in America. Like a cancer spreading across our nation's body politic, the mega-corporate financing of deceptive TV ad campaigns has become the predominant manner in which a majority of voters are "educated." Or, more frequently, mis-educated.

In 2004, multi-millionaires supporting George Bush's re-election created "Swift Boat Vets for Truth." They spent many millions advancing expertly-crafted, lying TV ads stating that presidential candidate John Kerry, a Purple Heart-winning combat officer who had volunteered to fight in Vietnam, betrayed his country. These well-financed lies shifted the national campaign "narrative" to Kerry's justification of his wartime record, away from the clear facts that President Bush lied to the American people to get them into an unpopular war in Iraq. And away from irrefutable evidence that his politically powerful father pulled strings so that he could evade military service during the Vietnam War.

Eight years later, more than $45.6 million was spent using Swift Boat tactics to defeat Prop 37. Multi-billion dollar corporations financed a relentless barrage of deceptive, fear-mongering ads, all of them bankrolled by tax-deductible contributions from the world's largest pesticide and junk food companies. The top three funders alone, Monsanto (who brought us, and declared safe, Agent Orange and DDT), Du Pont, and Dow Chemical (of Bhopal fame), spent almost double the $8.7 million that the advocates of Prop 37 raised.

The Swift Boat style ads uprooted the Label GMO narrative from consumers "Right to Know," to the No on 37 Campaign's carefully-crafted, fear-inducing slogans of a "Deceptive Labeling Scheme," and "Shakedown Lawsuits," and 'Higher Grocery Bills." With Monsanto-financed junk science, "experts," data, and a million dollars a day of TV ads, No on 37's propaganda successfully "re-educated" millions of Californians.

Despite a poll at the beginning of this year finding that 91 percent of Americans support labeling genetically modified (GMO) food, Prop 37 was defeated on Election Day by a vote of 53 percent to 47 percent.

Although I have collaborated with funders, volunteers and few staffers of the California Right to Know Prop 37 campaign, the views expressed here are solely my own. I write this a veteran communications professional who created and funded the http://www.KnowGMO.org effort of "People Powered Media to Counter Deceptive Corporate Ads."

In a nutshell, we need to take off the kid gloves. The next time we head into the public ring with some of the highest paid, most sinister corporate propagandists on earth, we are going to need to hit a lot harder than the Prop 37 campaign's multi-million dollar TV ad blitz, whose motto was, "Food is Love. Food is Life. Food is Family."

Next time let's disregard the in-house polling in which citizens suggest that they do not want to vote for a negative campaign. If that were true we would have won this vote in a landslide. If we have evidence of likely health hazards -- which we do with GMO's -- we should not be afraid to warn people about them.

We also need to use grassroots volunteers -- not to raise money, but to spread awareness, using their authentic voices. And we should expect to be outspent and outgunned, as companies like Monsanto will buy ten times the ads we can, insist on better time slots for them, and pay their advertising experts ten times what we will. We should refute their lies the day they appear, and use the social networks of our supporters and what advertising we have, to control the narrative and bring it back to public health concerns.

I am not here to play a blame game. But there are important lessons that all grassroots efforts in the public interest can learn from the corporate Swift-Boating of our populist campaign to Label GMO's in California. Here are my top ten:

1. Make Voters Care!

Proposition 37 started in 2011 as a grassroots effort by Pamm Larry, a grandmother in Chico, California. Working with others, like the Organic Consumers Association, she mobilized thousands of activists and a dozen or so progressive organizations and companies to get the 1 million signatures needed to get Prop 37 on the ballot. The bill would have required food manufacturers to label genetically modified (GM) ingredients on all packaged foods that already contained food labels. The bill also banned the use of the word "Natural" on products with GMO's -- the most unnatural ingredient imaginable.

The key problem, in my opinion, emerged soon after paid professional campaign managers, led by Gary Rushkin, were brought in by Prop 37's initial organizers and funders to manage millions of dollars for organizing, ads and marketing.

At some point late this summer, the Prop 37 campaign made two poorly-reasoned decisions: to focus the campaign's messaging and marketing positively, on a consumer's "Right to Know" what is in their food. And, more importantly, to avoid warning voters of the potential health hazards of genetically modified food. According to a social media advisor to the campaign who explained to me why the Prop 37 websites refused to circulate simple grassroots citizen videos we collected about labeling GMO's, the campaign would refuse any videos that spoke of health concerns, used the word Monsanto, or reflected the important work of Jeffery Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology and the world's foremost health critic of GMO's.

Ritch Davidson, a compassionate communications expert in Northern California familiar with the campaign's messaging, believed that health considerations should have been front and center in the Prop 37 advertising. "They're telling us we have a right to know but not why we want to know," he said.

2. It's About Our Health and Safety

As a parent and health-conscious consumer, the more I learned about the likely impact that genetically modified food has on our health, the more alarmed I became. My initial rationale for supporting the labeling of GM food (more than 80 percent of all corn and soy) was because I am against the dominance of our food supply by a handful of corporations, against the poisoning of our planet's soil and water by ever increasing reliance upon pesticides and herbicides, and against the corporate imperialism that supplants agrarian economies with a reliance on "patented" crops that do not germinate.

But once I learned about the probable health risks associated with eating, my concern over eating (and labeling) GM food increased exponentially. The studies and empirical data that convinced me are cited toward the bottom of this article. I was amazed at the corruption of the federal Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.), and its unwillingness to independently test the health effects of GM food.

Monsanto has managed to use its money and clout to buy off governmental, scientific, and scholarly oversight of the health risks of GM food. So in its unwillingness to warn the public about the health risks of genetically modified food, the Prop 37 Campaign surrendered the most effective weapon it had in its messaging arsenal.

3. Keep It Simple

The most effective, simple political messages our times have come from the diabolical Republican messaging pros who know can take the tiniest sliver of fact and turn them into a well messaged, fear-inducing lie ("Death Panels" for mom, anyone?). Monsanto and the corporate funders of the Know on 37 Campaign set a line in the sand in California. They knew that once food manufacturers were made to label GM food for the ninth largest economy on earth (California), they would insist on non-GM ingredients (as they have done in Europe).

So the No on 37 Campaign hired Thomas Hiltachk, a Republican messaging veteran and former tobacco industry PR expert. He wasted no time in coming up with whopper messaging slogans that would stick -- with a $40 million TV ad budget pushing the messaging to the public night and day.

Hiltachk blew the "Right to Know" narrative out of the water. By late August, the top left corner of the No on 37 website laid it out with these super simple headlines: "Stop the Deceptive Food Labeling Scheme... Increased Costs to Consumers. Arbitrary Exemptions. Shakedown Lawsuits. Conflicts with Science."

So audacious was the No campaign's messaging that THEY, not the Yes on 37 campaign, trotted out doctors in TV ads wearing white lab coats expressing concern about the impact that "deceptive" food labels would have on their patients!

Meanwhile, the CA Right to Know Campaign promoted the slogans "Right to Know" and "Food is love." These may sound simple, but they are not direct in what they ask voters to do, which is to INFER a complex message that voters need to be motivated to consider (food is love, so label GM food; we have a right to know, so label). The message itself failed to evoke support for the measure.

Here's an example of a simple, and direct message that the Yes campaign might have won with:

Don't consumers deserve a warning label before they eat risky food that has been genetically altered to contain dangerous built-in pesticides? Vote Yes on Prop 37 to label genetically modified food.

4. Dump Mr. Nice Guy

I was told by Prop 37 campaign insiders that they had polled California focus groups and found that people were turned off my negative campaigning and would be less likely to vote for a Proposition that used negative messaging.

So the campaign decided to "keep it positive" with 'Right to Know" and "Food is Love."

What the "Nice Guys" at the California Right to Know campaign were somehow unresponsive to, was that Monsanto and its allies were also polling voters to craft their messaging. And the experts, pollsters and ad creators at the No Campaign had something like ten times the budget, and compensation, that they did. Their research was tempered with big tobacco and Republican experience: Swift-Boating and appealing to people's fears through negative messaging works.

Mr. Nice Guy got dumped on Election Day. Grassroots progressives need to fight fire with fire. In 1988, Public Citizen and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) mounted a campaign to ban Alar, a chemical sprayed on apples to lengthen hang-time. The campaign to ban Alar focused on the substance's health risks. The NRDC's "Intolerable Risk" study was broadcast on 60 Minutes, while articles were featured in women's magazines with headlines suggesting to mothers that their children were being unknowingly poisoned. This raised consumer concerns and resulted in a public outcry, forcing the EPA to ban the substance, which was voluntarily withdrawn by the manufacturer before the ban went into effect.

Was it fear-based, negative messaging? Yes.

Were they fact-based health risks that consumers deserved to know? Yes.

Was the campaign successful? Yes.

Was the messaging simple? Poison apples. It doesn't get simpler than that.

5. Corporate Financed Ads Will Lie Ruthlessly: Prepare for It

Monsanto's reputation is well known by its past work, assuring the public that DDT and then Agent Orange were perfectly safe, based on scientific studies that they conducted and promoted themselves. Since patenting seeds and stealthily expanding GM crops across the world, Monsanto has bought off lawmakers, scholars, scientists, universities, and media conglomerates. They have used their enormous power to intimidate independent farmers, state legislatures, and entire nations.

That the No on 37 ads would be diabolically deceptive should not have surprised the CA Right to Know Campaign. The No experts tipped their hand toward the end of August, well before their ad barrage started. They bid up and controlled all of the Google keyword searches for "Prop 37" and "Label GMO's" immediately, linking to a well-designed website that got all the key slogans and messages across in bold letters right in the top left of the web page.

The Yes on 37 Campaign should not have been taken by surprise by the level of deception and dirty tricks they were facing. Once they saw the new narratives that they would be up against, they should have prepared for a barrage of ads using these fear based, deceitful messages. And switched the Yes campaign's messaging to a tougher campaign based on public health risks.

6. Respond to Lies Immediately and Effectively

John Kerry's 2004 Presidential campaign was faulted for not responding more quickly, and effectively, to the Swift Boat ads. The Prop 37 Campaign took more than six weeks to refute the false narratives that the No Campaign posted on their website in August. During this time, visitors to the Prop 37 website had to click through from the home page to an Info link, and read an entire page of text to INFER how little truth there was to what Monsanto and its allies were saying.

Even in mid-October, when the Prop 37 Campaign finally provided a clear point by point rebuttal of the distorted facts (like a fictitious $400 a year cost to consumers), the Campaign's website, as you can see here, required a visitor to SCROLL DOWN to see the rebuttal.

To me, as a veteran web messaging specialist, nothing illustrates the inadequacy of the Yes on 37 Campaign's work than a comparison of the campaign website with the No on 37 website. The Yes campaign took far too long to respond to lies and switch the narrative-and they never responded effectively.

More than a dozen slick No on Prop 37 TV ads enjoyed $1 million a day of air time, beginning on October 1. By October 11, support for Prop 37 had dropped below 50 percent for the first time.

In the last few weeks before Election Day, a few million dollars were added to the Yes on 37 Campaign's budget to respond effectively to the negative ads. They released what one major funder called a "powerful new ad."

It was called "Food is Love." The Yes Campaign was toast.

7. They Have the Money But We Have the People: Empower Your Volunteers

We knew from the beginning that the label GMO campaign would be vastly outspent by the big pesticide giants. They would swamp us with ads and crafty messaging. They had the money--but we had the people.

There was an almost unprecedented level of grassroots support for the Prop 37 campaign. Some ten thousand unpaid men and women across the state volunteered to help. They turned out in droves to help collect the 1 million signatures it took to get Prop 37 on the ballot.

But once Prop 37 was on the ballot and the real battle against Monsanto and its allies had begun, the Yes Campaign failed to adequately utilize these volunteers. They decided that the best thing volunteers could do was to go out to farmer's markets and hand out literature (a good idea) and to raise money for the campaign to buy TV ads with.

The problem was that most people don't enjoy asking other people to donate money. Besides which, the amount volunteers could raise in public was a tiny percentage of the total amount supportive companies and funders were giving -- and, of course, would not buy enough ads to make any difference.

The volunteer-as-fundraiser policy became an obstacle to success when it came to important lawn sign promotion across the state. The campaign organizers in each county were instructed to demand that volunteers obtain $10 for each of the 10,000 large Yes on 37 lawn signs that the Campaign ordered, as well as a dollar or so for each bumper sticker and button.

But the lawn signs only cost a fraction of $10, and they should have been as a cheap billboard policy. Volunteers could have gone door to door and found prominently located houses in their community, knocked on the door, and asked for permission to put a sign in the lawn. A few of us did that here in Sonoma County, with 20 donated signs (for which the donor paid $200), and got a lot more "yes please" responses than no's. Imagine how much easier it is to knock on a strange door and ask permission to place a sign than to ask someone for $10 to buy a sign.

After a wasted month warehousing many lawn signs in coordinator's garages, the Campaign changed its instructions, and asked for a donation of any amount. It was too little, too late. It would have been more beneficial to have printed three times as many lawn signs -- and used its thousands of volunteers to distribute them for free as a cheap billboard strategy.

8. Mainstream Media is Not Your Friend

On the right side of the top of the No on 37 web page is an image of dozens of newspaper front pages with a headline, "Nearly Every Major Newspaper in California Agrees: No Prop 37."

Many voters paid attention to their local editorial pages. Those of us who have spent time within the world of corporate media know how loud the voice of advertisers is on editorial pages -- and how minimal the voices of grassroots activists and non-advertising citizens can be. So it was not surprising to see one editorial after another use the deceptive but well-circulated logic of the No campaign to recommend that people vote against labeling GMO food.

The Yes Campaign should have coordinated editorial page visits to each of the 50 largest newspapers by volunteers who subscribed to those newspapers. Face to face meetings with editorial boards by local subscribers, not Campaign professionals, might have helped.

More importantly, the Campaign relied far too heavily on TV advertising to spend its limited money. I never learned what the media category breakdown for the campaign was, but I was told by an insider that "every penny we raise is going to TV and radio ads." As far as I could tell, the Campaign spent little, or nothing, on online ads, failed to compete in buying Google keyword search ads, and refused to pay for billboard ads ( one activist I know was turned down by the Campaign for a billboard strategy and then raised $15,000 herself to purchase more than 200 billboard ads in Los Angeles).

The purchase of TV ad time is slanted toward the biggest buyers. When a group like the No on 37 Campaign spends eight or ten times more than their opposition on a media buy, they get to insist upon placement conditions (such as "no prime time for them or its no deal.") As a result, when the first presidential debates played on network news in Northern California, at least four No on 37 ads appeared on TV, and not a single Yes ad.

8. Social Networks ARE Your Friend: Use People-Powered Media

The Prop 37 Campaign felt that it needed to rigidly "control" their messaging as well as the messaging of volunteers across their websites and communications channels. The campaign wanted volunteers to spread their carefully-scripted message, as opposed to inspiring some of its 10,000 volunteers and 173,000 Facebook "likers" to become social network bloggers, expressing, in their authentic voices, why THEY supported labeling GMO's.

In this way, they might have found more motivated and effective social networkers among their many supporters. During our KnowGMO.org project's video collection process, we invited participants to say whatever their opinion was about GMO labeling. Our concept of "People Powered Media to Counter Deceptive Corporate Ads" was that we would provide a free tool for Californians to "be the change they want to see" by replacing deceptive ads with their own actions. They soon were given a dedicated web page containing that video to share with their social networks. It was surprising how varied, and original, many of their responses were. These participants were each sent a web page with their videos on them to spread through their own social networks, and nearly all of them did so, enthusiastically.

But the campaign did not want to have volunteers or supporters record and distribute their own videos. Their Northern California Field Coordinator, and their Social Network advisor, refused requests to let Campaign supporters know about the KnowGMO effort. They also did not want (or "they didn't even want) to use a single one of the free videos we collected, even after they requested farmer videos (we had collected dozens of them at markets and the state Grange meeting). The campaign's social media advisor, and their Northern California field coordinator, explained to me that all the videos that the Campaign distributed needed to contain Campaign message points, that they should not reference health risks, or mention the Corporation-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named (Monsanto).

9. "Not Invented Here" Has No Place in Grassroots Campaigns

Paid advisors and campaign managers always want their funders to feel that their money is being well spent. That's natural. It becomes problematic, however, when this need supplants the grassroots nature of a progressive campaign to create a "Not Invented Here" policy.

The Yes Campaign's TV ads were professionally produced, but in my view, weakly messaged. To me and many I spoke to, the most convincing, powerful ads done during this period were not from the campaign itself, but independent organizational supporters of labeling GM food. Many activists thought the best ads on the subject were made by outside groups and viewed on YouTube, like this expertly scripted ad from Nutiva ("if the food kills bugs, what does it do to us?"), and anotherhilarious one viewed by hundreds of thousands on Food & Water Watch, which features Bill Maher, Emily Deschanel, and the cast of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia.

These great videos, or shortened versions of them, never aired on TV, or influenced the messaging of the official Campaign ads. The Campaign paid little attention to them, focusing instead on airing, and using its web presence to draw attention to, the less convincing ads that it created and financed.

10. Maintain Control of the Narrative

About a week before the Election, I realized that No on 37 Campaign would win. It was not just the polls, which showed a dead heat, and a troublesome under 50 percent approval for the Label GMO measure. But when I engaged friends -- even progressive friends -- and leafleted at farmer's markets and Costco, I heard one question after another, like "why is the law poorly written," as well as its "crazy exemptions," and lawsuits against small farmers. A local Mexican American bee farmer liked the idea of the law, but was seriously worried about lawsuits that might come if his bees pollinated GMO flowers and his honey tested positive for GMO's.

The law did not cover honey or livestock, I assured him, but facts were beside the point. The conversation had shifted during the three months I worked on KnowGMO, from the health risks of GMO and the impact of pesticides, patents, and GM farming on our ecology, over to the deceptive narratives backed by the No Campaign's $45 million in ads. Monsanto's swift-boating of the grassroots had worked.

Next time grassroots activists need to do better. And there will be a next time, maybe not for a while in California, but in other states, and even nationally. Already, one million people have signed a petition lobbying the F.D.A for a federal labeling law, a strategy backed by the eloquent Gary Hischberg, founder of Stonyfield Farm.

Next time let's be aware of who we are fighting with, and how they have stacked the decks against us. As long as pundits can say that there is no reputable science questioning the health safety of GM food, the public interest in labeling and restraining its spread will be in check. We need to spoon-feed them this science, and let them know we will not be led quietly into the Frankenfood night.

Keep these hyper-linked facts in mind, and spread the word!

The F.D.A. Has Been Corrupted

The reason that neither our government food protection agencies, nor independent scientists, can properly investigate the long term impact of genetically modified food is because scientific research into food safety, and its effect on public health, has been hijacked and corporatized. What little scientific research exists is largely industry-funded, therefore data is manipulated and evidence unsavory to the corporations is suppressed. GM foods are given an automatic GRAS (generally recognized as safe) approval from the FDA, which relies on the very companies that create GMO's to evaluate their safety for human consumption.

The FDA stated in 1992 that GM foods weren't significantly different than their conventionally grown counterparts, and therefore were considered safe without any safety testing required. However Jeffrey Smith, CEO of the Institute for Responsible Technology, cites internal memos revealing this assessment to be fraudulent, as FDA insiders were ordered by the White House to promote GMO.

The FDA executiveresponsible for this decision wasMichael Taylor, the current U.S. "Food Safety Czar", who also held positions, both in government and biotech, including Vice President of Monsanto and lawyer for Monsanto, and USDA Administrator of the Food Safety & Inspection Service. Monsanto and other biotech corporations are notorious for craftily inserting their high-paid executives into the FDA, USDA and various government regulatory positions, ensuring product approval while bypassing legal and ethical laws.

The Health Risks of GM Food Are Frightening

The No on 37 campaign repeated the message that GM foods are "safe" ad nauseum. The Right To Know campaign decided to run away from this claim instead of refute it - an unnecessary move considering the wealth of information available regarding the potential health risks associated with GM foods.

Multiple animal studies done by The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) indicate that genetically modified foods may cause serious health complications, such as infertility, alternation of liver function, changes in metabolism, accelerated aging, disruption of the intestinal system, and substantial immune changes, including changes in the regulatory proteins associated with allergies, asthma, and inflammation. The AAEM advises all physicians to prescribe non-genetically modified foods, as well as educate all patients on the potential dangers.

In a recent French study published in The Food & Chemical Toxicology Journal, the first to be conducted over a lifetime in rats (two years vs. the two months studied by Monsanto funded studies), those fed GM corn suffered from severe liver and kidney damage, and disturbingly large cancerous tumors. 70 percent of females died prematurely.

Possibly most troublesome is the fact that materials in GM soy may continue to live on inside a consumer's belly, long after it has been ingested. The biotech industry claims that dangerous pesticide toxins from GM food break down inside the digestive tract, and therefore do not pose a health risk. This declaration was soundly refuted by a recent Canadian study published by the Reproductive Toxicology journal, which showed two dangerous GMO toxins, detectable in the blood of nearly 90 percent of pregnant women and 100% of their fetal cord blood.

Numerous doctors and public health organizations have spoken publicly about the dangers posed to our health and the health of the environment. Jeffrey Smith has recorded numerous doctor interviews describing how prescribing GMO-free diets have created remarkable results. Many patients with chronic, supposedly incurable gastrointestinal problems, allergies, arthritis, depression, weight issues and more were able to get off their harmful pharmaceutical drug therapy regimes and get their lives back. Parents of sick children have also spoken out about the benefits they've experienced after switching to a non-GMO diet, and awareness is spreading.

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