Piercing the veil

September 10, 2013

Some corporations and industries are so unpopular they go to great lengths to mask their involvement in policy debates. Rather than wage quixotic efforts in their own names, they form and fund more likable front groups to do their bidding for them.

The ninjas of this tactic in the modern era are the tobacco companies. Often they get away with it, confusing the public just enough to carry the day. And sometimes they get tangled in their own lies, like the time a campaign I was involved with caught a Philip Morris executive red handed ghost writing a ballot argument for the Korean American Grocers Association.

Big Oil learned from Big Tobacco and uses many of the same tactics to get its way. This is particularly true in true-blue California where some two-thirds of voters hold unfavorable opinions of oil companies.

So it’s not surprising that Chevron Corporation, the largest petroleum company in California, is funding a front group called Fueling California, in order to undermine the state’s popular clean energy law (AB 32) and the low carbon fuel standard. In this case, it wasn’t Korean grocers that Chevron ducked behind for cover, but rather some of the most successful brands in America – companies like United Airlines, UPS, Walmart, and Avis – which they cast as “consumers.”

To fight back, our partner StopFoolingCA.org, took aim at the companies that are helping Chevron, launching a custom-built Twitter tool to make it easy for supporters to tell Fueling California’s members to #QuitChevron, developing hard-hitting web ads, promoting posts on Facebook and Twitter, and launching an online petition.

The response was enormous and encouraging. Our efforts generated 400 public tweets reaching more than 346,000 users, 10,000 emails and more than 81,000 social media impressions. In one month!

We know that the targeted companies took notice of the effort, and one, United Airlines, announced it was “re-evaluating its membership” in Fueling California. And faced with a flurry of bad press exposing Chevron’s outsized role in the group, the petroleum industry has spawned brand new groups, most recently one called CARE. And once again, the responsibility to expose phony groups lies with AB 32 supporters. On the same day CARE held its launch event last month, clean energy and climate advocates were back again to reveal the petroleum interests behind the curtain, with a parody logo and new web address at ScareAboutEnergy.org.

Fighting front groups is a bit like Whack-A-Mole. Stay tuned.

Update: In late September, Walmart confirmed that it had resigned its position on Fueling California’s board of directors. Kudos to the retailer for making the right choice.

Eric Jaffe

Image courtesy Bartek Miskiewicz, Flickr Creative Commons.