Repurposing the astroturf

I ran across a piece with that title a while ago, and it's prompted a few thoughts about "astroturf" - the practice of creating an apparent grass-roots movement through subterfuge, careful marshalling of opposition, and the construction of apparently independent third-party coalitions and organizations. Of course, whether it's Kentucky bluegrass or astroturf is in the eye of the beholder. There are always two sides to a story - but money (or lack of it) is usually a high hurdle for one side in an issue campaign. Campaigns with well-integrated advertising, lobbying efforts, sophisticated and well-maintained websites and apparent widespread grass-roots support are sometimes viewed with suspicion. The charge of astroturfing, because it requires relatively large amounts of money, is frequently associated with big business or right-wing interests.

Way back in 1997, Mother Jones ran an examination of the astroturf organizations being coordinated by the Global Climate Coalition, an umbrella group apparently organized by the Washington PR outfit Ruder Finn.

Of course, astroturf campaigns can also benefit from charitable organizations and their in-house capabilities. (for example)

A non-smoker's rights org has prepared a clear guide (.pdf) for activists trying to track the money, organizations, lawyers and lobbyists working for the tobacco lobby. It's also a quick reference for any effort to uncover astroturf organizations.

A radio ad has been running on Chicago radio for the past few weeks, opposing an upcoming change to the fire code. The ads make a passionate and credible safety argument, and close by pointing the listener to a third-party site. Jumping to the site, you can see it's sponsored by the firefighter's union and others. I know nothing about the issue, but alarm bells always seem to ring when the safety card is heavily played in an issue campaign.

The shareholder uprising at Disney has been branded a "grass roots revolution," but is it? Roy Disney and Stanley Gold have spent a lot of money convincing the public that their fight with Michael Eisner is over corporate strategy and proper governance mechanisms.

Their campaign has relied upon a sketchy protest website, a growing irritation in the entertainment industry towards Eisner, and Roy's goofy but familiar features - which certainly remind me of good old Uncle Walt and his Sunday night TV program. But is it really a grass-roots revolution?

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