Thursday, June 25, 2009

Astroturfing

My father was a chemist involved with the development of latex paints. Some people would call this “artificial paint” way back when. He used to take business trips now and then with quite a few of them to Texas, I recall. On one of these trips in 1966 he had gone to the Houston Astrodome, the first indoor stadium, and the first baseball stadium with artificial grass. I remember him describing how plush the seat were. And I also remember him mentioning the Astroturf, the new name for this artificial grass which had been developed by Monsanto.

It’s interesting how slang gets developed. For example, Dr. Kevorkian made a name for himself by his commitment to doctor-assisted-suicide. In the computer world, “to Kevork” became shorthand for killing a program.

So it is that Astroturf has morphed into unanticipated new applications. Astroturfing now means to create the impression of being spontaneous “grassroots” behavior. According to Wikipedia Senator Lloyd Bentsen coined the term.

Astroturfing would be a propaganda technique to give the impression of a spontaneous movement which has actually been purposely orchestrated.

Many businesses have attempted to create "viral marketing" campaigns that appear to be naturally viral when in fact they have been orchestrated with this aim in mind. Certain popular YouTube videos were originally failures in their earlier generations before appearing to spontaneously "catch on."

In the age of media sound bytes, all kinds of efforts have been made by political parties to give appearances, but which backfire when handled too transparently. Michael Dukakis riding in a tank to give the appearance of foreign policy resoluteness was almost comical during his presidential bid. Sadly, I witnessed a Republican experience of the same nature during my involvement in that party in 1984. I was at a 5th district meeting in St. Paul in which someone was seeking 17 volunteers to help paint an old person's house on the upcoming Saturday morning. All three television stations would be present to capture this act of compassion for the weekend news. The aim was to show that Republicans care about the poor. I received an icy glare when I raised my hand and asked why we don't just explain how our platform and policies will help the poor. I clearly didn't "get it."

Many antiwar protesters in the Viet Nam era were lured to Washington D.C. by rumors that famous rock groups would be performing. I expected to see and hear the Jefferson Airplane in MayDay 1971, as well as the Beach Boys. The latter did indeed put on a show around two in the afternoon.

In the famous Halloween Blizzard of 1991 here in Duluth, I ventured out on Sunday morning to see what condition the Hillside roads were in. As I stood outside the Twins Bar on fourth street I saw three people walking up the road. One was then-Mayor Doty, along with a news camera from channel 3 and Mr. Doty's handler. They were looking (fairly unsuccessfully) for cars stuck in the snow that needed a push. The aim was to create the impression that the mayor was helping people and cared about the problems we were experiencing. I was the only one out on the street so they walked over to me and I saw he was wearing make-up. They wanted to make sure he did not get any glare off the snow to distract from his honest and helpful appearance.

What mystifies me is that politicians continue to create sound bytes in this manner and for this purpose. Is the public really so naive and gullible? Am I missing something here?

Wikipedia has quite a few examples of astroturfing, though the Wiki has itself become a form of AstroTurf to some extent. No matter the issue, power brokers on both sides are shoring up their positions by using the same techniques.

2 comments:

LEWagner said...

>>>>>>>>>>>>The aim was to create the impression that the mayor was helping people and cared about the problems we were experiencing. I was the only one out on the street so they walked over to me and I saw he was wearing make-up. They wanted to make sure he did not get any glare off the snow to distract from his honest and helpful appearance.

Now that's funny.
Cousin Richard, Pete's son, liked to go out driving in his big, rusty, old, 4-wheel-drive, high-rise, Chevy truck during blizzards, and look for people to pull out of the ditch. He always carried a chain, mittens, and other heavy clothing with him, per instructions both from Pete and from me.
One time he ran across a cop in the ditch, and hollered out in a friendly fashion, "Could ya use a pull?"
The cop stuttered a little, "Nah, it's against the law for you to pull me out. I'm about to call in."
"What are you going to call in for? They'll just send a wrecker, and maybe a news crew too, and then you'll be on the news ... But here I am, right now, with a chain, four-wheel drive, and plenty of power. I think my lights are all working, too. You gotta hook the chain on yourself, though. I don't want to be responsible."
The cop stuttered a little more, and said, "Uh, could you hook the chain on for me? I'm not really dressed for crawling under a vehicle."
"Oh, if you're not sure where to hook it on so the whole thing comes out in one piece, hook it to the frame. Yeah, I can do it for you ......... And here we go! Hang onto the steering wheel!"
"Vroooom VROOOOM! Spin, SPIN! Slow clambering progress! Traction! Ahead! TOO fast!!! STOP!!!!!"
Then, after the cop was back up on the pavement and hearts beating normally again, "If you got a pen in your car, I'd appreciate it if you'd jot that license plate number down, and remember it, eh?"
Richard never wore make-up, just a big beer-induced perpetual grin.

ENNYMAN said...

Cute story (about Richard & the cop)