Toxic Sludge is Good For You

I can hardly believe it.

Recently, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP)  “voluntarily” pulled an infomercial, designed to elicit warm, healthy feelings towards dirty oil and the Alberta Tar Sands, after complaints by the Sierra Club and others. The ad compared toxic pond tailings to yogurt (“Oilsands ad comparing tailings to yogurt to be revamped” The Vancouver Sun).

There is, in fact, a book by the title Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies, and the Public Relations Industry published by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton. So when I came across the article this evening about this crude piece of perception management, I was doubly taken-aback, and also had to wonder whether the designers of this infomercial didn’t get their own education in public perception management directly from a book critiquing the public relations industry itself.

The toothlessly inept PR “self-regulating” Advertising Standards Council (ASC) apparently found nothing wrong with the ad and no deliberate overt intent to mislead by CAPP through the latter’s association of toxic sludge with yogurt. But what can you expect, really, from a front-group whose raison d’etre and public mission is described as being “dedicated to creating and maintaining community confidence in advertising”? The Advertising Standards Council is a just another form of perception management in itself. The ASC exists to protect the public relations industry from the public (as well as from itself).

Said CAPP spokeswoman Janet Annesley in the report: “If any viewers believed we were suggesting tailings were good to eat, that was sincerely not our intent.”  Well, that’s pretty devious! Given how the infomercial was tested out on a number of “focus groups” for its effectiveness, this remark is also just a devious evasion and cover story. Of course the infomercial wasn’t suggesting you can actually eat toxic sludge! It was trying to associate the tar sands and the petroleum industry’s effluent and toxic sludge with a product known for its health benefits. If there’s “guilt by association”, there’s also the suggestion of innocence by association. After all, why didn’t CAPP compare the effluent in the Tar Ponds to, well,.. tar? Even molasses might have been more appropriate. But yogurt? I don’t know of any black, sticky yogurt.

But how effective was this blatant piece of perception management? You would think most people would find this crude manipulation devious, and deserving of the utmost scorn and derision.

Not so, apparently. As added by The Toronto Sun,

CAPP, meanwhile, says its advertising campaign is generally working.

Polls suggest 50% of those surveyed who have viewed the commercials have an improved perception of the industry, while for 15% it had the opposite effect, says CAPP data.

A net benefit, it seems. Mission accomplished. (But what does it mean to have one’s perception “improved”?)

The follies of “free speech” in its most deficient and distorted expression. But that follows from granting citizenship rights to corporations. “Free speech” debases dialogue, for being only half the story of dialogue — a half-truth, in effect. And granting corporations citizenship rights debases citizenship and empties the word “citizen” of all meaning and value.

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