Of Big Gulps, PR Ethics, Courage and Hidden Identity

Is it ethical for a company to hide its identity when it enters into robust public discussion of important social issues? Is it decent?

Is it ethical for PR people to be part of this charade?

Some big businesses apparently have the backbone of a Hostess Twinkie. If news and blog reports are accurate, Philip Morris, Wendy’s and Coca-Cola are some of the companies that are behind a clever and arresting ad campaign against New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to fight obesity by banning restaurant sales of sugary drinks in bottles and cups larger than 16 ounces.

The ads are put up by ConsumerFreedom.com. At its website, the “consumer” group, The Center for Consumer Freedom, says:

Many of the companies and individuals who support the Center financially have indicated that they want anonymity as contributors. They are reasonably apprehensive about privacy and safety in light of the violence and other forms of aggression some activists have adopted as a “game plan” to impose their views, so we respect their wishes.

Images of hordes of crazed tofu eaters and green tea drinkers with pitchforks and torches storming corporate headquarters to extract vengeance.

Really?

Obesity is epidemic. We all pay the price, through our health insurance premiums and taxes, for the health damage obesity causes. So — as is true with stemming the health costs of smoking through anti-smoking campaigns — this is a fair issue for public debate. Should government protect public health through laws? We ban asbestos in insulation because it causes cancer. We ban drinking while driving because it kills and maims people. We ban cigarette advertising on TV because it can lure young people into starting smoking. It’s no coincidence that obesity in America has risen while beverage companies have moved from 12-ounce serving sizes to 16, 24 and more.

Should the foods and drinks that cause health-destroying obesity be regulated? And, if so, how? Fair questions, and all sides should be heard in a spirited public debate.

But many on one side lack the courage to put their names behind their messages.

Yes, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s (and I’m sure others) have come out publicly against Bloomberg’s ban, so they have the courage to oppose this issue in daylight. But there is something pernicious about advertising that hides its funders. That’s one of the issues in Citizens United. There is a big difference between a consumer reading that Coca-Cola opposes the ban and a consumer seeing a clever full-page ad that stirs the consumer’s emotions without disclosing who’s behind the ad.

The Center for Consumer Freedom was apparently founded by Philip Morris to fight smoking restrictions. Their purpose? To help consumers or to sell more products?

Over and over, in the PR business, we form corporate-created and corporate-funded “consumer groups” to push a business message. Is that ethical? Are we okay with that? Is it ethical to form front groups and not disclose who’s behind them?

When I was an impressionable new PR person, our client, Northwest Airlines, asked the PR firm I worked for to get people to call into a radio debate on public financing for airline maintenance and service centers. The question of whether it was good for Minnesota to spend tax dollars to create jobs in Minnesota and keep an important business in the state was a fair one to debate. I was uncomfortable, though, with the request to salt the mine, to get paid to prompt people to call in and support the airline’s position. Astroturf.

Should PR people be part of these kinds of lurking-behind-the-scenes campaigns? What do you think, gentle readers?

— Bruce Benidt