Polling, PR and propaganda: How the chemical industry creates 'Public Perception'

"[What W]e propose is a person skilled in communication with women. The chemical industry very badly needs the support of this specialized and numerous group... The loyalty of women can help us tremendously if they understand the facts about food additives, labelling [sic], water pollution and even plant safety."
- Public Relations Advisory Committee, February 1961 (view entire document)

For half a century, the chemical industry has waged a high-stakes, high-priced public relations war against the American public. The industry has used every trick in the PR business with polling, focus groups, news media outreach, propaganda materials such as videos, pamphlets and speakers' programs, paid advertising, promotion of pro-industry scientific experts and research, and most of all, greenwashing - PR campaigns that hype chemical makers' "environmental commitment" while hiding the truth about their toxic pollution.

EWG analysis of internal industry documents shows that from 1952 to 1996 the Chemical Manufacturers Association (now known as the "American Chemistry Council") spent an estimated $185 million to shape public opinion (inflation adjusted dollars). In many years, the budget was well over $10 million.

These figures don't include the PR and ad campaigns of major CMA member companies such as DuPont, Dow Chemical and General Electric, who spend millions each year on their own; CMA's political lobbying and "grassroots" outreach programs; and the industry's sizeable political contributions. According to OpenSecrets.org these contributions reached a total of $38 million to federal candidates from 1990 to 2000.

The Chemical Industry Archives reveal for the first time not only the size of the CMA's PR effort but its scope, and the industry's determination to win the public opinion war at any cost. The documents paint a portrait of an industry whose objective is to polish its image and increase its profits without due regard for the consequences to public health and the environment.

As early as 1951-52, the Manufacturing Chemists Association, predecessor of CMA, and ACC commissioned the Public Opinion Research Corp. to track public attitudes. (view entire document) As the pseudo-science of polling grew more sophisticated, so did CMA's public opinion efforts.

By 1979, CMA had outlined a research plan fit for Madison Avenue that included focus groups to test the appeal of all proposed public relations and advertising messages and ongoing polling of both the general public and specialized target audiences including government, "political actives," "communicators," educators, and regions with major chemical operations. (view entire document) For these efforts CMA proposed spending more than $6 million a year (adjusted for inflation). (view entire document)

A 1988 polling and focus group proposal by CMA's "Public Perception Committee" illustrates the depth of the industry's research effort. Up to 3,000 Americans in six cities would be interviewed for a full hour to find out what they knew and thought about chemicals and chemical risks. (view entire document)

By 1990, CMA's specialized targeting had expanded to 10 key audiences: (view entire document)

  • Chemical industry employees
  • Local activists
  • Federal officials
  • National public interest groups
  • Educators and students
  • Plant communities
  • Local and state officials
  • News media
  • Shareholders and analysts
  • General public

At a 1991 CMA directors meeting, advertising and PR consultants explained in detail the development, rollout and followup of a new ad campaign, offering specific message objectives, demographic targets, and saturation goals. (view entire document)

CMA not only tracked public opinion to determine what issues Americans were concerned about, but also the spin that should be employed when talking about those issues - whether it accurately represented the industry's actions or not. Before CMA unveiled its "Responsible Care" campaign in 1990, in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, every aspect of the program was test-marketed. The campaign emphasized a "commitment to improve performance" because CMA knew from polling and focus groups that such a message would be "the strongest message the industry can deliver." (view entire document)

Since the 1970s, CMA has also used polling to measure the opinions of journalists and news media executives. A 1980 report noted with alarm that "media leaders rated the chemical industry as the least truthful" of the six industries tested. (view entire document) CMA researched the reading habits of "media opinion leaders," finding that the most effective way to communicate the industry message would be through Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post,and The Wall Street Journal. (view entire document)


Knowing what journalists think is the first step; the second is changing the way they think. Through the 1950s, the industry employed Hill & Knowlton, one of the nation's largest and most powerful public relations firms. In 1961, CMA decided even more resources and more aggressive tactics were needed.

CMA's Public Relations Advisory Committee reported with concern a series of "strong articles favoring the demand for stricter pollution control," and warned of "a possible increase of authoritative power . . . in water and air pollution control." (view entire document) More PR staff and more targeted messages were recommended "to protect against the financial burdens of meeting unrealistic demands in pollution control." In particular, the report said, the industry must reach out to women:

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In 1979, the industry launched a major advertising and PR campaign called the Chemical Industry Communications Action Program, or ChemCAP. The most prominent weapon of the PR offensive was the Science Advisory Group (SAG), a team of scientists employed by CMA companies and recruited to speak as "the authoritative voice" of the chemical industry. As the ChemCAP proposal notes, "public and media believe scientists more than business people." (view entire document)

This wasn't a new strategy. In 1972, a CMA subcommittee on air quality had proposed paying scientists for their seal of approval:

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The goal of the Scientific Advisory Group was to promote scientists who would vouch for the industry's concern about the "the safety of its products, workers, neighbors." (view entire document) To that end, CMA dispatched teams of scientists on media tours to targeted markets. SAG became a travelling road show and compiled a growing catalogue of news coverage, as reports from 1980, 1982 and 1987 show.

CMA also regularly provided spokespeople and interview facilities at the meetings of two target audiences: American Women in Radio and Television (AWRT) and the National Association of Farm Broadcasters. In 1982, CMA's Communications Committee proudly declared that "an estimated 15.6 million people received our message" as a result of interviews conducted at the AWRT meeting. In 1982, the Committee again reported success: (view entire document)

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The SAG program also targeted newspaper editorial pages. In a six-month period in 1984, CMA arranged 78 editorial board meetings on Superfund issues. (view entire document) In only four months in 1987, CMA representatives met with 250 editorial boards. (view entire document)

CMA began broadcasting "newsfeed" via satellite in 1983. (view entire document) By 1988, long before the practice became common among other industries and interest groups, CMA was distributing by satellite a program called Newsline. CMA used its access to politicians, scientists and opinion leaders to provide content for "free and unrestricted use" to local broadcast affiliates with time to fill in their newscasts (view entire document). Newsline was promoted heavily with "satellite news advisories." (view entire document)(view entire document)(view entire document)

The industry has used a similar approach for radio, producing "The Report," "a series of ten stories on five topics, all having to do with health, safety, and the environment." (view entire document) Every two weeks, CMA would mail a new taped program to more than 3,000 radio stations, free "content" for many small stations.

Influencing news coverage wasn't enough. A 1981 ChemCAP memo, decrying the "adverse use of chemical situations" in "TV docu-dramas and other entertainment programs", recommended hiring "expert consultants" to find "a course of remedial action." (view entire document) The following year, the Communications Committee reported:

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The problem with public relations campaigns is that the news media do not always buy the industry's spin. As aggressive as the CMA's research and press operations have been, the centerpiece of its image campaign has always been advertising - "paid media that guarantees the consistent accuracy of message delivery." (view entire document)

For a long time, the industry's advertising campaigns were limited to "informational" booklets and audio-visual materials. In 1975-76, for example, CMA planned to spend $26,000 for "Internal Publications" and $24,000 for "Education Exhibits" and "Education Publications," but nothing on advertising. (view entire document) But with the launch of ChemCAP in 1979, CMA began a high-visibility advertising campaign.

In 1981-82, the industry spent more than $4.7 million(adjusted for inflation) on "print advertising development, space costs, etc." (view entire document) The next year, in the midst of a recession, the ad budget was still more than $1.5 million. The industry focused its advertising in print outlets, which were less expensive than television and "because of the selective nature of [their] target audiences." (view entire document)

CMA's next big ad push came in 1990, when it unveiled the Responsible Care campaign in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. (view entire document) In April 1990 alone, the industry spent nearly $3 million in print advertising. (view entire document) The ad blitz included multiple full page ads in USA Today, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, People, and National Georgraphic's special Earth Day edition, each costing more than $100,000. In addition, CMA purchased a series of ads in major regional newspapers and industry publications. According to CMA research, the ads "reached 31 million households, for a readership of 62 million." (view entire document)

Starting in 1991, the industry committed $10 million per year for five years to public outreach efforts. Of that total, $8.5 million was earmarked for advertising each year. (view entire document) With that much money at stake, the industry developed a remarkably detailed and sophisticated process for developing new advertising themes - a process that apparently continues to this day. (view entire document)

Copyright Chemical Industry Archives
used by permission

FURTHER READING: How industry manipulates public opinion

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