Doubt as a Product — Then and Now
The research was coming out and cigarette companies were panicking. Smoking was trendy, Hollywood stars were paid to smoke a company’s brand, money was rolling in. Then the research started showing the damage cigarettes did to the body and the potential for the industry to collapse was real. The industry needed to find a way to survive. This document from 1969 talks about the strategy. It is interesting to read for many reasons. Here are some excerpts.
“I think the anti-cigarette forces can be characterized as dedicated opportunists. They are quick to act and seem to be totally unprincipled in the type of information they use to attack the industry”
“As we look at it I believe we can see how we became an harassed and restricted industry and how we come to conflict with the awesome forces of the federal government.”
“The Tobacco Institute has probably done a good job for us in the area of politics and as an industry we also seem to have done very well in turning out scientific information to counter the anti-smoking claims. There is no question, though, that we have been inept in getting our side of the story, good though it may be, across to the news media and to the public.”
They saw themselves as the victim. The research was out, their product was killing some of their customers and ruining the health of many others, and the industry saw itself as ‘harassed and restricted’.
What they did next is important to understand because it sets up a strategy that has been copied repeatedly.
“… I have defined the basic marketing elements which I see in the smoking and health problem. Our consumer I have defined as the mass public, our product as doubt, our message as truth — well stated, and our competition as the body of anti-cigarette facts that exists in the public mind.”
“Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”
“If we are successful in establishing a controversy at the public level, then there is an opportunity to put across the real facts about smoking and health. Doubt is also the limit of our ‘product’. Unfortunately, we cannot take a position directly opposing the anti-cigarette forces and say that cigarettes are a contributor to good health. No information that we have supports such a claim.”
Re-read the last sentence and then remember what they said earlier.
“… we also seem to have done very well in turning out scientific information to counter the anti-smoking claims.”
It seems they weren’t quite honest with themselves or the public. The cigarette industry knew they didn’t have facts to support smoking as a healthy habit or to counter the anti-cigarette forces saying smoking was unhealthy, but what they could do was market doubt. That’s what they did for decades at the cost of the health and lives of millions.
This strategy worked extremely well. In 1984 the George C. Marshall Institute was founded. From the Wiki page about the institute:
The Institute put forward environmental skepticism views, and in particular has promoted fringe views regarding the scientific consensus on climate change.The think tank received extensive financial support from oil companies.
Like the cigarette industry dealt with in the 1960s, the oil industry was facing scientific facts that threatened their massive income stream. They needed to do something to save their paychecks, so they very successfully got into the business of marketing doubt.
What has all of this done to America? Like many did recently, I watched the video “Plandemic” and realized that marketing doubt was systemic. America, and many other countries, are so bombarded with falsehoods cleverly marketed as ‘truth’ that it is almost impossible to ascertain truths from lies. Fact-checking websites help but we have to always question their slant.
I have read theories that the Russian interference in the 2016 elections wasn’t trying to get Trump elected, but instead, the main goal was to sow discord in America, to destroy the enemy from within. What they did was find points of contention between different groups in America and exacerbate the tension. If you think about a concept like “Bernie Bros”, you can see where that works. There was much anger towards “Bernie Bros” voting for Trump to spite the DNC for rigging the primaries against Sanders. There was true anger from Sanders supporters towards the DNC, so it is believable they might cast protest votes. Maybe some Sanders supporters voted for Trump but I’ve never met one and I know a lot of “Bernie Bros”. Yet the idea is real enough that a well-funded Russian troll farm could plant the idea, nurture it, and pit Democrats against Sanders supporters. Doubt is their product. They successfully established a controversy that divided Americans.
We are not in the information age as much as the misinformation age. Anyone can find a source to support their point of view. There is no shortage of people and websites peddling doubt. The big question is, “What can we do about it?”
The answers are fairly straight forward.
- If you’re thinking of sharing something that is divisive, think long and hard. Do the research. Do the fact-checking. Make sure you’re sharing information and not spreading more divisive misinformation. Different opinions and points of view are good. Sharing misinformation because it emotionally resonates with you is bad.
- Know something about basic logic fallacies. At the very least, know what straw man and false equivalency are.
- Be kind and respectful. Others don’t have to be wrong for you to be right.
- Don’t put yourself in a box. Don’t get caught up in self-identifying as a: liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, etc. That sets you up to be emotionally ‘marketed’ to with misinformation.
- Vary your news sources. Read critically but with an open mind. Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
- Be willing to be wrong. Admitting you’re wrong and changing your mind is not a weakness, it’s a sign of personal growth.
- Read and read and read.
We are the ones granting power to forces working to destroy us. Every time we share misinformation, we are allies in the destruction of truth. Please, do your part to stop the spread of misinformation.