After two chaotic months as president, Donald Trump is widely credited with rewriting the political rule book. We are witnessing Trump’s new era of post-fact politics, where distraction and obfuscation are central, and critical stories are dismissed as “fake news”.
Thousands of column inches have analysed the new president. The Guardian calls him “a master of distraction”. Rolling Stone argues he has “stoked chaos” by creating “hurricanes of misdirection”. But while his leadership style has been criticised for being chaotic and made up on the hoof, we have actually seen it all before. It comes straight from the tobacco industry’s cynical playbook.
Let’s go back to mid-December 1953, to the New York Plaza hotel. Here took place a meeting between the presidents of four of the largest tobacco companies in the US and John Hill, founder of public relations (PR) company, Hill and Knowlton (H&K).
The tobacco industry was in crisis. Three years earlier in the UK, two esteemed epidemiologists, Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill, had published a paper on a causal link between smoking and cancer. And now, Reader’s Digest, then the world’s most read publication, ran an article entitled “Cancer by the carton”, taking the scientific findings mainstream.
How were these companies going to stop smokers from giving up in droves? The answer: the most creative and well-resourced public relations campaign ever seen. The PR strategy devised at the Plaza in 1953 was all about a two-pronged public relations campaign in order to “get the industry out of a hole” and to “stop public panic”. One memo outlined: “There is only one problem – confidence, and how to establish it; public assurance, and how to create it.”
By January 1954, the industry had published “A Frank Statement” in 448 media publications across the US, reaching some 43m people. The statement cast doubt on the science linking smoking with ill health and pledged to smokers that it would create the now defunct Tobacco Industry Research Committee, hiring the best scientists to get to the truth. What it did not say is that the committee would support “almost without exception, projects which are not related directly to smoking and lung cancer”. Obfuscation and diversion were key to the strategy, as were “alternative facts”.
Cloak of smoke
The ensuing campaign to deny any health impact from smoking would last for decades and be replicated by the fossil fuel companies and some in the food and drink industry. Despite heavy criticism, these methods are still in play today from politicians speaking about climate change to Trump and Brexit.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the tobacco industry, guided by the PR gurus at H&K, was learning to divert attention all the time. In 1968, an executive from H&K reiterated the best media angles for the industry magazine, Tobacco and Health Research:
The most important type of story is that which casts doubt in the cause and effect theory of disease and smoking. Eye-grabbing headlines should strongly call out the point – Controversy! Contradiction! Other Factors! Unknowns!
The following year, one now well-quoted internal memo from Brown and Williamson, a subsidiary of British American Tobacco (BAT), outlined how:
Doubt is our product since it is the best way of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.
The industry kept the controversy alive by sowing doubt.
There was “no substantial evidence”, “no clinical evidence”. The debate was “unresolved” and “still open” as nothing had been “statistically proven” or “scientifically established”. There was “no scientific proof”. It was clinical and cynical. “A demand for scientific proof is always a formula for inaction and delay and usually the first reaction of the guilty,” conceded the head of research at BAT in 1976.
Another way was to seek alternative facts. In 1970, Helmut Wakeham, head of research and development of Philip Morris, wrote: “Let’s face it. We are interested in evidence which we believe denies the allegations that cigarette smoking causes disease.”
Nine years later, in 1979, Trump purchased an 11-story property which would become Trump Tower, just three minutes’ walk from the New York Plaza. By now, the industry was also denying the evidence of the health harms of secondhand smoke. Once again, the industry set up organisations to conduct research and divert attention away from the truth. To further confuse the debate, it set up front groups who acted on its behalf and smokers’ rights organisations to promote industry arguments.
Trump Tower was finished in 1984, the year that forms the title of George Orwell’s famous novel. This novel depicted a dystopian future of censorship, Big Brother and manipulated truth.
The public began to understand the true level of the tobacco industry’s own manipulated truth via the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, which forced previously private internal documents to be made public. The legal ruling forced the closure of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, which was described as an example of “a sophisticated public relations vehicle based on the premise of conducting independent scientific research – to deny the harms of smoking and reassure the public”.
In 2004, the year that Trump and his tower gained notoriety in the popular television series The Apprentice, research by the UK epidemiologist Sir Richard Doll estimated during the industry’s 50-year denial campaign, some 6m people had been killed by tobacco in the UK alone.
Since its internal workings were exposed in the 1990s, the tobacco industry has tried to reposition itself as responsible, as the corporate and political playbook evolves. But whereas once the tobacco industry courted scientists, both the Brexiteers and Trump have been quick to attack experts. “People in this country have had enough of experts,” said Michael Gove at the height of the Brexit campaign.
Trump and his advisers seem to have taken the playbook to a new level. After a row over the size of his inauguration crowd, Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway was widely criticised for using the term “alternative facts”.
Her use of the term has spawned its own Wikipedia page, which notes “the phrase was extensively described as Orwellian”. By January 26, 2017, sales of the book Nineteen Eighty-Four had increased by 9,500%, which The New York Times and others attributed to Conway’s use of the phrase.
However, the industry got there first. Brown and Williamson even developed a cigarette brand called “Fact”, which allowed it to twist the language of smoking and health, and an advertising agency developed “current fact” and “alternative fact concepts”.
“Is Fact a safer cigarette?” asked one document from the 1970s. “Critics of smoking claim that cigarettes are dangerous. We don’t agree … That’s not a claim. That’s a Fact.”