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The Smoking Gun 

A treasure trove of damning evidence against Big Tobacco has been unearthed at UCSF

Wednesday, Nov 30 2005
Anne Landman isn't a real archaeologist, at least not of the sort who wields a rock hammer in the African desert. But she's become a Louis B. Leaky of corporate duplicity thanks to the help of a digital Rosetta stone just unveiled at UC San Francisco. Librarians there have perfected a key to deconstructing the history of American marketing manipulation.

Landman is at UCSF under a 15-month fellowship that pays her to browse 7 million pages of insider corporate information in the university's collection of memos, invoices, and other documents made public as part of a 1998 settlement between tobacco companies and state attorneys general.

This immense trove is home to thousands of stories, dating from the 1920s, about the myriad ways the tobacco industry employed scientists, lobbyists, activist front groups, marketing experts, and other operatives in the most expensive, aggressive, and long-lasting public and political campaign in American history. The players and ideas developed in this effort now populate any corner of American public life where distorting the truth has the potential to advance power or profits. Until now, however, these documents were searchable only under topic headings. Researchers had to read them page by page to find the obscure, juicy parts.

Six weeks ago UCSF librarians finished scanning the entire collection with character recognition software. Now that the project's finished, anyone with an Internet connection can use Boolean search terms to data-mine the private deliberations behind marketing campaigns to keep people buying cigarettes despite growing recognition of health risks.

These campaigns by U.S. tobacco companies involved spending billions of dollars on phony science, fake grass-roots activism, mass psychological manipulation, corporate issues management, and all the other techniques for implanting false images in the public mind known collectively as marketing. This enterprise served the narrow purpose of selling cigarettes. But the expertise quickly migrated into corporate America. Now, techniques and personnel cultivated by Big Tobacco can be found anywhere corporations, politicians, or other manipulators seek to transform bogusness into popular sensibility.

The newly searchable database shows this evolution. Karl Rove's favorite expert on "Astroturf" got his start as a hack pushing the phony Big Tobacco campaign to stop kids from smoking. A marketing guru famous for parsing for Detroit the psychology behind the desire for gas guzzlers earlier produced a report for Philip Morris concluding that anti-youth-smoking messages can actually help hook teens on smokes.

"The one I stumbled across a couple of days ago was kind of a missing link," says Landman, in reference to the aforementioned youth-smoking memo. "Why would they abandon their most lucrative market? And why would they say they didn't want youth to smoke?"

The memos suggest they didn't.

Similar questions arise anywhere corporations find the need to turn reality upside down. That's because the marketing seeds planted by tobacco companies now propagate everywhere.

Who are those supposed scientific researchers who say global warming is hogwash? Why does the Bush administration get away with its contempt for legitimate science? And why, really, do so many people believe they're nobodies without a big, grimacing automobile?

The answer to these and thousands of other questions about the workings of modern, manipulated, American society are now there for the browsing thanks to the work of a few librarians and medical researchers at UC San Francisco.

As spokeswoman for Philip Morris USA, Jennifer Golisch has perfected the non sequitur earnestness in defense of speciousness that's the hallmark of high-level corporate public relations.

I asked her about a 1991 Philip Morris memo Landman unearthed earlier this month, in which marketing consultant Clotaire Rapaille recommends tobacco companies tap into children's earliest "neuronal pathways" of desire by characterizing cigarettes as an initiation into adulthood. The companies should "stress that smoking is for adults only, make it difficult for minors to obtain cigarettes," and "Stress that smoking is dangerous; smoking is for people who like to take risks, who aren't afraid of taboos," Rapaille suggested.

Golisch responded by saying she wouldn't comment on UC researcher Landman -- though I hadn't asked her to comment on Landman -- and instead said she'd share with me the company's anti-youth-smoking campaign. "Our products are intended for adults only, we don't think kids should smoke, and it causes serious diseases," she said, adding that Philip Morris has spent $1 billion since 1998 advancing the tobacco-is-for-adults message and paying retailers to display cigarettes beyond kids' easy reach.

Aren't those exactly the sorts of marketing maneuvers Philip Morris' consultant said in 1991 would sell more cigarettes? I asked.

"As a manufacturer of a product that's for adults, and causes heart disease, we believe we have a responsibility to help prevent kids from smoking," she said, apparently pretending to misunderstand the question.

This lysergic acid-like worldview, achieved when cynical gibberish is repeated so many times it seems normal, has infused every aspect of life thanks to the marketer's code that says bullshit walks -- on water.

It's possible to begin cracking the code using the newly searchable UC San Francisco tobacco archives.

Rapaille, a French medical anthropologist whose work on teasing apart the childhood-born psychological "archetype" behind smokers' behavior, features prominently in the tobacco archive. There, reams of memos and reports describe how he convened focus groups in which participants were encouraged to delve deeply into their unconscious for memories and feelings about smoking, then converted the results into pseudo-scientific marketing mumbo jumbo. Rapaille's done the same thing for 50 large corporations. For Chrysler Corp., for example, he's recommended car features that push consumers' cerebral "reptilian hot buttons," which Rapaille defines as early, fond childhood memories of concepts or products that, once evoked, become irresistible. The result has been billions of dollars spent on a marketing message that conveys Americans' need for extra-huge SUVs and hot-roddish gas guzzlers.

Once Rapaille had helped Philip Morris adopt the reverse-psychology, "adults only" tobacco marketing message, other companies came on board the Coalition for Responsible Tobacco Retailing. Firms dispatched agents into schools to pass out "adults only" literature. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., for example, employed operative Tom Synhorst to contact school districts in Wichita, Topeka, Des Moines, St. Louis, and elsewhere, a project detailed in the UCSF archive memos.

Synhorst later redeployed these claptrap-peddling skills. He set up various Washington "grass-roots" political consulting firms, and is now known as the Johnny Appleseed of "Astroturf," a technique in which paid operatives set up phony front groups to create the appearance of grass-roots political advocacy. Synhorst's work has undertaken such campaigns for the Bush administration, AT&T, and pharmaceutical and computer companies.

"I know these guys well. They become partners with the campaigns they work with," Bush adviser Karl Rove is quoted as saying on the home page of the consulting firm Feather Larson & Synhorst.

Along with phony advocacy, tobacco companies have pioneered the art of phony science. Its tendrils wind through the UCSF archive.

Stephen Milloy, a scientist known for attempting to debunk the science behind global warming, the dangers of pesticides, and the like, shows up in the archive writing e-mails to Sharon Boyse, director of scientific issues for the tobacco company Brown & Williamson. The memos chronicle the two hacks plotting how to best publicly pooh-pooh the idea that secondhand cigarette smoke causes disease.

"Anytime one is looking at the way corporations manipulate public opinion, the tobacco archive is fantastic," says Laura Miller, editor of PR Watch, a publication of the Center for Media & Democracy in Madison, Wis. "Many people currently working in the persuasion business got their start working for tobacco."

UCSF has been the nation's main repository for insider tobacco documents ever since medical professor Stanton Glantz in 1994 posted on the Internet a box of secret internal tobacco company documents that had been delivered to him by an anonymous source.

The following year B&W Vice President Jeffrey Wigand provided internal documents to 60 Minutes producer and UC Berkeley instructor Lowell Bergman, showing tobacco officials had lied about tobacco health risks. Bergman was ultimately impeded in his efforts to create a program segment using the documents, a drama that was eventually made into the movie The Insider. The Brown & Williamson documents became the basis for lawsuits causing tobacco companies to pay out billions of dollars and release millions more pages of insider information online. Glantz obtained grant money to turn UC San Francisco into a global repository for the documents, an archive that continues growing as a U.S. Justice Department racketeering lawsuit against tobacco companies pries more boxes of internal documents from company file cabinets.

"The tobacco industry is the most malignant force in the world today, and the documents are the key to understanding it," Glantz says.

UC San Francisco librarian Kirsten Neilsen launched the online library in 2002, and created an index using information provided by the tobacco companies. There existed no way, however, to know what was on each of the 7 million pages without individually reading them. The answer lay in scanning each page using text recognition software, a massive computing problem Neilsen's staff solved by conjuring a novel way of employing the library's public computer terminals used by students.

"There were a bazillion technical details," Neilsen says. "When the computers weren't being used, [the customized scanning program] would ping the computers, then start feeding them these documents."

Soon after the full-text search function was online, Anne Landman took her new supercharged rock hammer for a spin. Landman is working on a paper about how the tobacco industry has quietly paid social scientists, philosophers, and historians to help advance the cause of cigarettes.

Out popped documents chronicling Rapaille's work for Philip Morris probing childhood notions of smoking's allure.

"It kind of explains why they had no fear to switch from openly marketing to kids to setting up youth prevention programs, backing age restrictions, supporting moving tobacco behind counters in stores. It all serves to make it more attractive to kids," Landman says.

The next time you find yourself coveting a powerful SUV or nodding in response to a pundit who denies the concept of global warming, don't despair, there's a reality check available at your nearest Internet terminal, deep inside:

About The Author

Matt Smith


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