Aug 1 1996

Is It Real…Or Is It Astroturf?

PR Firm Finds 'Grassroots' Support for Breast Implants

It’s no small thing to win a public relations fight. A corporation under pressure benefits from the biases of the profit-making news media, but the pro-corporate leanings of commercial journalism don’t guarantee favorable coverage. What you need are propaganda-generating troops, and if you have the money, you can buy some.

In the late 1980s, the pressure on silicon breast-implant manufacturers was mounting. After years of private lawsuits in which successful plaintiffs were silenced by gag orders imposed in court, sick women started appearing on television in December 1990, claiming that unscrupulous corporations were knowingly making money from implants that made women ill. As the FDA prepared to hold hearings on the breast implant controversy, Dow Corning Corp. (DCC) and other manufacturers of silicone products got busy.

“The issue of cover-up is going well,” Dow Corning CEO Dan Hayes wrote in a 1991 internal memo (provided to FAIR by anti-Dow breast implant activists). “Obviously, this is the largest single issue on our platter because it affects not only the next 2-3 years profitability of DCC, but also ultimately has a big impact on the long-term ethics and believability issues…. What is at risk here is somewhere between $50 million and $500 million.”

To counter concern stirred up by public-interest activists like those working with Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen Health Research Group, DCC’s PR campaign linked corporate-friendly science to pseudo-grassroots organizing.

“I have started to intitate surgeon contact,” wrote Hayes. “The place we have the biggest hole still missing…is in this whole arena of getting the patient grassroots movement going…. I’m very worried.”

Dow Corning was in good hands–those of Burson Marsteller, the world’s largest public relations firm. Burson-Marsteller has expertise in developing the phony grassroots organizations that professionals call “astroturf”: industry-generated “citizens” groups who can be relied upon to lobby government and speak eloquently to media. (See John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton’s Toxic Sludge Is Good for You.)

According to a confidential letter excerpted in Stauber and Rampton’s PR Watch (First Quarter/96), Burson Marsteller’s strategy for DCC involved identifying patients who could be trained as spokespeople, making corporate grants to appropriate organizations, providing “day-to-day media support for the group…. These women (including celebrities) will be trained and testimony will be written for them to deliver before Congressional committees.”

The public relations goal was to get “women angry about having the right to make their own decision about implants taken away from them…. We also want to place regional, and if possible, national media stories on the need for keeping this option open.”

For those who’ve followed the breast implant debate, the argument above will sound familiar. One of the most often cited spokespeople for this point of view is Sharon Green, the executive director of the national breast cancer organization Y-ME. Her group participated in a partly DCC-funded “fly-in” of women to Washington in the run up to the FDA’s 1991 hearings.

In August 1995, Green testified in Congress:

We believe that women must be part of their health care choices and this included accepting the risks associated with those choices…. Silicone gel implants provided the easiest, most inexpensive method of breast reconstruction with some of the best cosmetic results, yet they are no longer a viable option for women with breast cancer. What silicone product will be the next to go?

Two months later, Y-ME’s Green made another plug for implants on the Oprah Winfrey Show (9/27/95), arguing that without the implant option, women would be scared to go for mammograms.

The March/April ’96 issue of Ms. magazine quoted Green as “the country’s most vocal advocate for ‘choice’ as it concerns silicone implants” and listed Y-ME among the groups to contact “If You Need Help.”

What neither Ms. nor Oprah mentioned was that Dow Corning and Bristol Myers Squibb (two of the silicone implant manufacturers) and Plastic Surgeons Associated are among the high-powered (and financially interested) funders of the Y-ME organization.

Media outlets have often failed to investigate the corporate sponsorship of astroturf organizations. Mary Ann Childers,a reporter for CBS in Chicago, went even further. Childers chose to interview Sharon Green for a segment (WBBM-TV, 2/2/96) on contemporary science and breast implants–even though she herself is on the honorary board of Y-ME.

“In the spirit of honest disclosure,” Childers admitted her relationship to the group at the end of the segment, but she didn’t think Y-ME’s funding by Dow warranted any mention. “Years ago, they got support for their hotline, but they’ll take money from anyone,” she told Extra!.

Burson Marsteller, Dow Corning and their friends depend on groups that will “take money from anyone”–and on an uncaring media machine.