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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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5. Corporate Financed Ads Will Lie Ruthlessly: Prepare for It

Monsanto’s reputation is well known by its past work, assuring the public that DDT and then Agent Orange were perfectly safe, based on scientific studies that they conducted and promoted themselves. Since patenting seeds and stealthily expanding GM crops across the world, Monsanto has bought off lawmakers, scholars, scientists, universities, and media conglomerates. They have used their enormous power to intimidate independent farmers, state legislatures, and entire nations.

That the No on 37 ads would be diabolically deceptive should not have surprised the CA Right to Know Campaign. The No experts tipped their hand toward the end of August, well before their ad barrage started. They bid up and controlled all of the Google keyword searches for “Prop 37” and “Label GMO’s” immediately, linking to a well-designed website that got all the key slogans and messages across in bold letters right in the top left of the web page.

The Yes on 37 Campaign should not have been taken by surprise by the level of deception and dirty tricks they were facing. Once they saw the new narratives that they would be up against, they should have prepared for a barrage of ads using these fear based, deceitful messages. And switched the Yes campaign’s messaging to a tougher campaign based on public health risks.

6. Respond to Lies Immediately and Effectively

John Kerry’s 2004 Presidential campaign was faulted for not responding more quickly, and effectively, to the Swift Boat ads. The Prop 37 Campaign took more than six weeks to refute the false narratives that the No Campaign posted on their website in August. During this time, visitors to the Prop 37 website had to click through from the home page to an Info link, and read an entire page of text to INFER how little truth there was to what Monsanto and its allies were saying.

Even in mid-October, when the Prop 37 Campaign finally provided a clear point by point rebuttal of the distorted facts (like a fictitious $400 a year cost to consumers), the Campaign’s website, as you can see here, required a visitor to SCROLL DOWN to see the rebuttal.

To me, as a veteran web messaging specialist, nothing illustrates the inadequacy of the Yes on 37 Campaign’s work than a comparison of the campaign website with the No on 37 website. The Yes campaign took far too long to respond to lies and switch the narrative-and they never responded effectively.

More than a dozen slick No on Prop 37 TV ads enjoyed $1 million a day of air time, beginning on October 1. By October 11, support for Prop 37 had dropped below 50 percent for the first time.

In the last few weeks before Election Day, a few million dollars were added to the Yes on 37 Campaign’s budget to respond effectively to the negative ads. They released what one major funder called a “powerful new ad.”

It was called “Food is Love.” The Yes Campaign was toast.

7. They Have the Money But We Have the People: Empower Your Volunteers

We knew from the beginning that the label GMO campaign would be vastly outspent by the big pesticide giants. They would swamp us with ads and crafty messaging. They had the money–but we had the people.

There was an almost unprecedented level of grassroots support for the Prop 37 campaign. Some ten thousand unpaid men and women across the state volunteered to help. They turned out in droves to help collect the 1 million signatures it took to get Prop 37 on the ballot.
But once Prop 37 was on the ballot and the real battle against Monsanto and its allies had begun, the Yes Campaign failed to adequately utilize these volunteers. They decided that the best thing volunteers could do was to go out to farmer’s markets and hand out literature (a good idea) and to raise money for the campaign to buy TV ads with.

The problem was that most people don’t enjoy asking other people to donate money. Besides which, the amount volunteers could raise in public was a tiny percentage of the total amount supportive companies and funders were giving — and, of course, would not buy enough ads to make any difference.

The volunteer-as-fundraiser policy became an obstacle to success when it came to important lawn sign promotion across the state. The campaign organizers in each county were instructed to demand that volunteers obtain $10 for each of the 10,000 large Yes on 37 lawn signs that the Campaign ordered, as well as a dollar or so for each bumper sticker and button.

But the lawn signs only cost a fraction of $10, and they should have been as a cheap billboard policy. Volunteers could have gone door to door and found prominently located houses in their community, knocked on the door, and asked for permission to put a sign in the lawn. A few of us did that here in Sonoma County, with 20 donated signs (for which the donor paid $200), and got a lot more “yes please” responses than no’s. Imagine how much easier it is to knock on a strange door and ask permission to place a sign than to ask someone for $10 to buy a sign.

After a wasted month warehousing many lawn signs in coordinator’s garages, the Campaign changed its instructions, and asked for a donation of any amount. It was too little, too late. It would have been more beneficial to have printed three times as many lawn signs — and used its thousands of volunteers to distribute them for free as a cheap billboard strategy.

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