Front groups

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This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's spotlight on front groups and corporate spin.

This article is part of the Tobacco portal on Sourcewatch funded from 2006 - 2009 by the American Legacy Foundation. Help expose the truth about the tobacco industry.

This article is part of the Coal Issues portal on SourceWatch, a project of CoalSwarm and the Center for Media and Democracy. See here for help on adding material to CoalSwarm.

A front group is an organization that purports to represent one agenda while in reality it serves some other party or interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned. The front group is perhaps the most easily recognized use of the third party technique. For example, Rick Berman's Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) claims that its mission is to defend the rights of consumers to choose to eat, drink and smoke as they please. In reality, CCF is a front group for the tobacco, restaurant and alcoholic beverage industries, which provide all or most of its funding.

Of course, not all organizations engaged in manipulative efforts to shape public opinion can be classified as "front groups." For example, the now-defunct Tobacco Institute was highly deceptive, but it didn't hide the fact that it represented the tobacco industry. There are also degrees of concealment. The Global Climate Coalition, for example, didn't hide the fact that its funding came from oil and coal companies, but nevertheless its name alone is sufficiently misleading that it can reasonably be considered a front group.

The shadowy way front groups operate makes it difficult to know whether a seemingly independent grassroots is actually representing some other entity. Thus, citizen smokers' rights groups and organizations of bartenders or restaurant workers working against smoking bans are sometimes characterized as front groups for the tobacco industry, but it is possible that some of these groups are self-initiated (although the tobacco industry has been known to use restaurant groups as fronts for its own interests).

Characteristics

A front group typically has some (but not necessarily all) of the following characteristics:

  • Avoids mentioning its main sources of funding. Note that this does not necessarily mean absolute concealment of sponsorship. Some front groups do indeed go to great lengths to conceal their origins, funders and personnel links to sponsors. However, the likelihood that these will be exposed anyway, with embarrassing consequences for a group's credibility, has led many companies and their sponsored organizations to opt for a strategy of selective disclosure, in which funders are mentioned in an annual report or other obscure publication, but are not mentioned in the organization's most common communications that reach the largest audience.
  • Is set up by and/or operated by another organization, (particularly a public relations, grassroots campaigning, polling or surveying firm or consultancy)
  • Engages in actions that consistently and conspicuously benefit a third party, such as a company, industry or political candidate;
  • Effectively shields a third party from liability/responsibility/culpability
  • Re-focuses debate about an issue onto a new or suspiciously unrelated topic, (e.g., secondhand smoke as a property rights issue)
  • Has a misleading name that disguises its real agenda, such as the National Wetlands Coalition, which opposed policies to protect U.S. wetlands, or Citizens for a Free Kuwait, which purported to represent U.S. citizens but was actually funded almost entirely by the royal family of Kuwait. Sometimes a front group's name might seem to suggest academic or political neutrality ("Consumers' Research," "American Policy Center"), while in fact it consistently turns out opinions, research, surveys, reports, polls and other declarations that benefit the interests of a company, industry or political candidate.
  • Has the same address or phone number as a sponsoring corporation, or a similar group that has since disbanded, or been forced out of business by exposure, lawsuits, etc.
  • Consists of a group of vocal, "esteemed" academic "experts" who go on national tours, put on media events, give press conferences, seminars, workshops, and give editorial board meetings around the country, etc., who ordinarily would not seem to have the budget or financial means to carry out such events
  • Touts repeatedly in communications that it is "independent," "esteemed," "credible" etc.
  • Has a custom-painted, luxury bus that goes on highly-publicized, national tours
  • Has remarkably low, if any, individual membership fees. (Front groups are typically in need of individual members to bolster their claims of being a "grassroots" organization. They need these individuals' representation more than their money -- since they are already well-funded by corporations -- so individual dues will typically be very low, perhaps $5 or $10, while group or corporate dues are much higher.)

An organization that only has a few of these characteristics may not be a true front group. For example, the tobacco industry has given funding to youth organizations such as the Jaycees and w:4-H clubs, which serves a public relations goal by helping the industry cultivate an image of corporate responsibility. This PR tactic is an example of the third party technique, and organizations that trade their reputations for corporate funding may be naive, gullible or opportunistic, but this in itself would not make them a front group.

History

Edward Bernays, who is generally regarded as the "father of public relations," liked to tell people, "What I do is propaganda, and I just hope it's not impropaganda." In his later years, he became a vocal critic of some of the deceptive techniques used within the PR industry. And yet it is Bernays himself who invented the quintessential tool of deceptive propaganda -- the "front group."

Bernays stumbled on this strategy almost by accident. In 1913, while working as editor of the Medical Review of Reviews, a monthly magazine owned by a college acquaintance, he discovered that the then-famous actor Richard Bennett was interested in producing a play titled "Damaged Goods," which Bernays described as "a propaganda play that fought for sex education." It discussed sexual topics, such as prostitution, that were considered unusually frank for their day. Bennett was afraid that the play would be raided by police, and he hired Bernays to prevent this from happening. Rather than arguing for the play on its merits, Bernays cleverly organized a group that he called the "Medical Review of Reviews Sociological Fund," inviting prominent doctors and members of the social elite to join. The organization's avowed mission was to fight venereal disease through education. Its real purpose was to endorse "Damaged Goods," and apparently the plan worked. The show went on as scheduled, with no interference from police.

"This was a pioneering move that is common today in the promotion of public causes--a prestigious sponsoring committee," notes PR industry historian Scott Cutlip. "In retrospect, given the history of public relations, it might be termed the first effort to use the front or third party technique." It was a technique that Bernays would return to time and again, calling it "the most useful method in a multiple society like ours to indicate the support of an idea of the many varied elements that make up our society. Opinion leaders and group leaders have an effect in a democracy and stand as symbols to their constituency." Bernays helped jump-start sales of bacon, a breakfast rarity until the 1920s, by enlisting a prominent doctor to solicit fellow doctors' opinions on the salutary benefits of a hearty breakfast and by arranging to have famous figures photographed eating breakfasts of bacon and eggs. To sell bananas on behalf of the United Fruit Company, he launched the "celiac project," republishing and disseminating a 20-year-old medical paper which found that eating bananas cured children with celiac disease, a disorder of the digestive system.

"Mr. Bernays has . . . created more institutes, funds, institutions, and foundations than Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Filene together," observed the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, a nonprofit educational organization that flourished in the years following World War I. "Typical of them was the Temperature Research Foundation. Its stated purpose was 'to disseminate impartial, scientific information concerning the latest developments in temperature control as they affect the health, leisure, happiness, and economy of the American people.' A minor purpose--so minor that rarely did Mr. Bernays remember even to mention it--was to boost the sales of Kelvinator refrigerators, air-condition units, and electric stoves."

Examples

For simplicity's sake, the list below includes some organizations (like the Tobacco Institute) that are not front groups per se but that engage in other deceptive activities.

(Some groups that have yet to be investigated are listed at Possible industry funded groups requiring investigation. If you would like to help document whether some of these groups belong in the list below, please feel free to start a profile on them.)

International examples

US examples

Canadian Examples

European & UK Examples

Australian Examples

See also

External links