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Ten Grassroots Lessons From Monsanto’s Swift-Boating of Prop 37 to Label GMO’s In California

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I am not here to play a blame game. But there are important lessons that all grassroots efforts in the public interest can learn from the corporate Swift-Boating of our populist campaign to Label GMO’s in California. Here are my top ten:

1. Make Voters Care!

Proposition 37 started in 2011 as a grassroots effort by Pamm Larry, a grandmother in Chico, California. Working with others, like the Organic Consumers Association, she mobilized thousands of activists and a dozen or so progressive organizations and companies to get the 1 million signatures needed to get Prop 37 on the ballot. The bill would have required food manufacturers to label genetically modified (GM) ingredients on all packaged foods that already contained food labels. The bill also banned the use of the word “Natural” on products with GMO’s — the most unnatural ingredient imaginable.

The key problem, in my opinion, emerged soon after paid professional campaign managers, led by Gary Rushkin, were brought in by Prop 37’s initial organizers and funders to manage millions of dollars for organizing, ads and marketing.

At some point late this summer, the Prop 37 campaign made two poorly-reasoned decisions: to focus the campaign’s messaging and marketing positively, on a consumer’s “Right to Know” what is in their food. And, more importantly, to avoid warning voters of the potential health hazards of genetically modified food. According to a social media advisor to the campaign who explained to me why the Prop 37 websites refused to circulate simple grassroots citizen videos we collected about labeling GMO’s, the campaign would refuse any videos that spoke of health concerns, used the word Monsanto, or reflected the important work of Jeffery Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology and the world’s foremost health critic of GMO’s.

Ritch Davidson, a compassionate communications expert in Northern California familiar with the campaign’s messaging, believed that health considerations should have been front and center in the Prop 37 advertising. “They’re telling us we have a right to know but not why we want to know,” he said.

2. It’s About Our Health and Safety

As a parent and health-conscious consumer, the more I learned about the likely impact that genetically modified food has on our health, the more alarmed I became. My initial rationale for supporting the labeling of GM food (more than 80 percent of all corn and soy) was because I am against the dominance of our food supply by a handful of corporations, against the poisoning of our planet’s soil and water by ever increasing reliance upon pesticides and herbicides, and against the corporate imperialism that supplants agrarian economies with a reliance on “patented” crops that do not germinate.

But once I learned about the probable health risks associated with eating, my concern over eating (and labeling) GM food increased exponentially. The studies and empirical data that convinced me are cited toward the bottom of this article. I was amazed at the corruption of the federal Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.), and its unwillingness to independently test the health effects of GM food.

Monsanto has managed to use its money and clout to buy off governmental, scientific, and scholarly oversight of the health risks of GM food. So in its unwillingness to warn the public about the health risks of genetically modified food, the Prop 37 Campaign surrendered the most effective weapon it had in its messaging arsenal.

3. Keep It Simple

The most effective, simple political messages our times have come from the diabolical Republican messaging pros who know can take the tiniest sliver of fact and turn them into a well messaged, fear-inducing lie (“Death Panels” for mom, anyone?). Monsanto and the corporate funders of the Know on 37 Campaign set a line in the sand in California. They knew that once food manufacturers were made to label GM food for the ninth largest economy on earth (California), they would insist on non-GM ingredients (as they have done in Europe).

So the No on 37 Campaign hired Thomas Hiltachk, a Republican messaging veteran and former tobacco industry PR expert. He wasted no time in coming up with whopper messaging slogans that would stick — with a $40 million TV ad budget pushing the messaging to the public night and day.

Hiltachk blew the “Right to Know” narrative out of the water. By late August, the top left corner of the No on 37 website laid it out with these super simple headlines: “Stop the Deceptive Food Labeling Scheme… Increased Costs to Consumers. Arbitrary Exemptions. Shakedown Lawsuits. Conflicts with Science.”

So audacious was the No campaign’s messaging that THEY, not the Yes on 37 campaign, trotted out doctors in TV ads wearing white lab coats expressing concern about the impact that “deceptive” food labels would have on their patients!

Meanwhile, the CA Right to Know Campaign promoted the slogans “Right to Know” and “Food is love.” These may sound simple, but they are not direct in what they ask voters to do, which is to INFER a complex message that voters need to be motivated to consider (food is love, so label GM food; we have a right to know, so label). The message itself failed to evoke support for the measure.

Here’s an example of a simple, and direct message that the Yes campaign might have won with:

Don’t consumers deserve a warning label before they eat risky food that has been genetically altered to contain dangerous built-in pesticides? Vote Yes on Prop 37 to label genetically modified food.

4. Dump Mr. Nice Guy

I was told by Prop 37 campaign insiders that they had polled California focus groups and found that people were turned off my negative campaigning and would be less likely to vote for a Proposition that used negative messaging.

So the campaign decided to “keep it positive” with ‘Right to Know” and “Food is Love.”

What the “Nice Guys” at the California Right to Know campaign were somehow unresponsive to, was that Monsanto and its allies were also polling voters to craft their messaging. And the experts, pollsters and ad creators at the No Campaign had something like ten times the budget, and compensation, that they did. Their research was tempered with big tobacco and Republican experience: Swift-Boating and appealing to people’s fears through negative messaging works.

Mr. Nice Guy got dumped on Election Day. Grassroots progressives need to fight fire with fire. In 1988, Public Citizen and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) mounted a campaign to ban Alar, a chemical sprayed on apples to lengthen hang-time. The campaign to ban Alar focused on the substance’s health risks. The NRDC’s “Intolerable Risk” study was broadcast on 60 Minutes, while articles were featured in women’s magazines with headlines suggesting to mothers that their children were being unknowingly poisoned. This raised consumer concerns and resulted in a public outcry, forcing the EPA to ban the substance, which was voluntarily withdrawn by the manufacturer before the ban went into effect.

Was it fear-based, negative messaging? Yes.
Were they fact-based health risks that consumers deserved to know? Yes.

Was the campaign successful? Yes.

Was the messaging simple? Poison apples. It doesn’t get simpler than that.

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