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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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8. Mainstream Media is Not Your Friend

On the right side of the top of the No on 37 web page is an image of dozens of newspaper front pages with a headline, “Nearly Every Major Newspaper in California Agrees: No Prop 37.”

Many voters paid attention to their local editorial pages. Those of us who have spent time within the world of corporate media know how loud the voice of advertisers is on editorial pages — and how minimal the voices of grassroots activists and non-advertising citizens can be. So it was not surprising to see one editorial after another use the deceptive but well-circulated logic of the No campaign to recommend that people vote against labeling GMO food.

The Yes Campaign should have coordinated editorial page visits to each of the 50 largest newspapers by volunteers who subscribed to those newspapers. Face to face meetings with editorial boards by local subscribers, not Campaign professionals, might have helped.

More importantly, the Campaign relied far too heavily on TV advertising to spend its limited money. I never learned what the media category breakdown for the campaign was, but I was told by an insider that “every penny we raise is going to TV and radio ads.” As far as I could tell, the Campaign spent little, or nothing, on online ads, failed to compete in buying Google keyword search ads, and refused to pay for billboard ads ( one activist I know was turned down by the Campaign for a billboard strategy and then raised $15,000 herself to purchase more than 200 billboard ads in Los Angeles).

The purchase of TV ad time is slanted toward the biggest buyers. When a group like the No on 37 Campaign spends eight or ten times more than their opposition on a media buy, they get to insist upon placement conditions (such as “no prime time for them or its no deal.”) As a result, when the first presidential debates played on network news in Northern California, at least four No on 37 ads appeared on TV, and not a single Yes ad.

8. Social Networks ARE Your Friend: Use People-Powered Media

The Prop 37 Campaign felt that it needed to rigidly “control” their messaging as well as the messaging of volunteers across their websites and communications channels. The campaign wanted volunteers to spread their carefully-scripted message, as opposed to inspiring some of its 10,000 volunteers and 173,000 Facebook “likers” to become social network bloggers, expressing, in their authentic voices, why THEY supported labeling GMO’s.

In this way, they might have found more motivated and effective social networkers among their many supporters. During our KnowGMO.org project’s video collection process, we invited participants to say whatever their opinion was about GMO labeling. Our concept of “People Powered Media to Counter Deceptive Corporate Ads” was that we would provide a free tool for Californians to “be the change they want to see” by replacing deceptive ads with their own actions. They soon were given a dedicated web page containing that video to share with their social networks. It was surprising how varied, and original, many of their responses were. These participants were each sent a web page with their videos on them to spread through their own social networks, and nearly all of them did so, enthusiastically.

But the campaign did not want to have volunteers or supporters record and distribute their own videos. Their Northern California Field Coordinator, and their Social Network advisor, refused requests to let Campaign supporters know about the KnowGMO effort. They also did not want (or “they didn’t even want) to use a single one of the free videos we collected, even after they requested farmer videos (we had collected dozens of them at markets and the state Grange meeting). The campaign’s social media advisor, and their Northern California field coordinator, explained to me that all the videos that the Campaign distributed needed to contain Campaign message points, that they should not reference health risks, or mention the Corporation-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named (Monsanto).

9. “Not Invented Here” Has No Place in Grassroots Campaigns

Paid advisors and campaign managers always want their funders to feel that their money is being well spent. That’s natural. It becomes problematic, however, when this need supplants the grassroots nature of a progressive campaign to create a “Not Invented Here” policy.

The Yes Campaign’s TV ads were professionally produced, but in my view, weakly messaged. To me and many I spoke to, the most convincing, powerful ads done during this period were not from the campaign itself, but independent organizational supporters of labeling GM food. Many activists thought the best ads on the subject were made by outside groups and viewed on YouTube, like this expertly scripted ad from Nutiva (“if the food kills bugs, what does it do to us?”), and anotherhilarious one viewed by hundreds of thousands on Food & Water Watch, which features Bill Maher, Emily Deschanel, and the cast of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.

These great videos, or shortened versions of them, never aired on TV, or influenced the messaging of the official Campaign ads. The Campaign paid little attention to them, focusing instead on airing, and using its web presence to draw attention to, the less convincing ads that it created and financed.

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