The reading ‘The Emerald City: advertising, public relations and the production of desire’ by Karliner (1997) explores the intricate world of public relations and the different tactics used by PR experts to manipulate their audience.
Karliner (1997) examines the various PR campaigns used following the 1962 release of the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962). Silent Spring (1962) is credited with having had a strong hand in initiating the environmental movement with its harsh criticism of the ecological impacts of pesticides on the environment. As a response to this biting criticism the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA, previously known as the Association of Manufacturing Chemists) hired E. Bruce Harrison to control the crisis, he in turn began what would eventually be referred to as a PR ‘carpet bombing campaign’ (Karliner, 1997). Much of what Harrison did in response to the Silent Spring (Carson 1962) controversy is still used today in PR ‘crisis communications’ (Karliner, 1997).
Karliner (1997) cites the estimation that in 1969 $300 million was spent on advertising by public utilities, which was more than 8 times the amount that was spent on the research that the companies were advertising in their campaigns. This type of green wash advertising continued building steadily and it’s estimated that approximately $1 billion a year was being spent on these advertisements (through from 1970 and into the Reagan years) by oil, chemical and automobile companies (Karliner, 1997).
As it became apparent that consumers were becoming more interested in buying environmentally friendly products the marketing of green merchandise increased. The words ‘recyclable’ and ‘biodegradable’ have become product staples in the advertising world as an answer to the increasing demand for green friendly products. The response in the advertising world to the demand for green products has been ferocious and at times frankly outrageous. There is a reference about how “the British Corporation ICI, which for years was the world’s number two producer of ozone-depleting CFC’s until it was forced to phase them out, advertised it’s shift to HFC’s and HCFC’s – global warming gases and ozone-depleters respectively – as ushering in a “a new generation of ozone friendly fluorocarbons”” (Karline 1997, pp. 172). In Malaysia the same company produced an extremely misleading newspaper ad which positively advertised the toxic herbicide Paraquat; a herbicide which has “poisoned tens of thousands of workers in Malaysia alone, is banned in five countries and is listed as one of the “dirty dozen” by the Pesticide Action Network” (Karliner 1997, pp.172).
Other tactics the PR ‘carpet bombers’ employ is the omission of important facts from their advertisements. For example the environmental project, ‘People Do’ headed by Chevron touted their programs to save the grizzly bears in Montana, the waterfowl in Mississippi, the eagles in Wyoming and the kit foxes in California, however they failed to mention that these programs are in fact mandatory under the law.
Another disturbing fact mentioned by Karliner (1997) is the apparent re-writing of history by certain companies, the worst offender being Exxon. After the catastrophic oil spill of the Exxon Valdez (an oil tanker) in 1989 Exxon took the chance to distribute their version of the story to school children by dispensing videos that claimed the oil spill did not in fact destroy wild life, despite the fact that a jury found Exxon guilty of destroying livelihood in Alaska (Karliner, 1997).
The wizards of PR certainly know how to work their magic and this may even get worse in time with the monopolisation of global powers. Decreasing independent media means skewed reporting is at a risk of increasing. If the PR ‘carpet bombing’ of the past is anything to go by, we may need to keep our wits about us.
Karliner, J 1997, ‘The Emerald City: advertising, public relations and the production of desire’, in The Corporate Planet: Ecology and Politics in the Age of Globalization, University of California Press, San Francisco, pp. 168-96.
Carson, R 1962, Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin Company, USA