Wolf Song of Alaska News

State-Hired PR Firm Cheats Democracy

The Murkowski administration believes the American public is generally against opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling partly because of a negative image garnered from attempts to fund "bridges to nowhere" and kill wolves from airplanes

Alan Boraas / Comment / Anchorage Daily News / May 22, 2006

The Murkowski administration believes the American public is generally against opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling partly because of a negative image garnered from attempts to fund "bridges to nowhere" and kill wolves from airplanes. To counter these negative attitudes and gain support for opening ANWR, the Murkowski administration has hired an Oregon-based public relations firm, Pac/West, to orchestrate a national advertising campaign at a no-bid cost of $3 million.

Pac/West, headed by Paul Phillips, has been involved in Alaska issues before. Phillips designed a campaign against last fall's ballot initiative brought by former Lt. Gov. Lowell Thomas Jr. and lifelong Alaskan George Pollard that would have banned the practice of bear baiting. Phillips labeled Thomas, Pollard and their Alaska supporters as representing Outside extreme environmentalists. This tactic was a major reason the initiative was defeated. According to an Anchorage Daily News article by Liz Ruskin, Phillips now wants to apply similar techniques to what he calls "social marketing" of the state's effort to open ANWR.

Nothing wrong with a little marketing, right? Yes and no. Yes, if you believe the end justifies the means. No, if you believe in democracy. Social and political marketing have been around for a long time, but today's techniques are far more sophisticated than a few catchy jingles and are designed to subconsciously reconfigure the electorate to the will of those with enough money to pay for it.

Social marketing is a two-step process. First, polls are commissioned to get an idea of what a particular demographic -- moderate environmentalists, Midwest farmers, etc. -- think about an issue. Additional polls and focus groups assess what each of those particular demographic's beliefs and core values are. Armed with results of opinion polls and knowledge of the group's core values, an advertising agency constructs a media campaign to change opinions targeting each particular demographic through local advertising and direct mail.

One of the primary methods of attitude manipulation is what Pierre Bourdieu has called symbolic violence. One variation is to capture and recontextualize a core value of the opposition and rob it of its original meaning by merging it with your own images. (Artists and scholars have been doing this to Native Americans for years.)

A classic example of symbolic violence in Alaska is oil company ads of peacefully grazing caribou set against a backdrop of the oil pipeline. In effect the ad captures a core value of environmentally inclined Alaskans -- a healthy environment represented by the caribou -- and merges it with a symbol of resource extraction -- the pipeline. The net effect is to neutralize an environmentalist agenda of strict oil company oversight by taking over their image and combining it with an industry image creating a feeling of compatibility. It may be transparent but it works if people watch it enough times.

More recently British Petroleum has run an ad campaign meant to counter an increase in oil taxes. It has merged pictures of hard-working and remarkably good-looking Alaskans with the implication that higher taxes will cause these beautiful people to lose their jobs. One could argue that corporate profits, not jobs, are the driving force behind BP. But by capturing the jobs image, the oil industry has neutralized those who are in favor higher oil taxes to build up the state's educational system to create an educated work force capable of obtaining jobs toward the higher end of the economic ladder and live at home as well. Seizing the jobs image is another instance of symbolic violence.

It was symbolic violence, of course, that Pac/West used to neutralize those who wanted to ban bear baiting by labeling them Outsiders when they are true-blue Alaskans. Now that Pac/West works for us, we can rest assured symbolic violence and other techniques will be used to manipulate the American public to favor ANWR.

The issue is not whether ANWR should or should not be opened. The issue is whether the state should be engaged in heavy-handed social marketing or rely on the foundation of democracy -- the free and open discussion of opinion based on fact to formulate public decisions. We should not contribute to the decay of liberty by engaging in social marketing, no matter what the cause.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.

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