Keep on scammin’ on: The evil brilliance, success and recurrence of The Playbook

Leading student in business propaganda, Australian social scientist Alex Carey persuasively argues that the 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance:

  • the growth of democracy;
  • the growth of corporate power;
  • the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.

Noam Chomsky, World Orders: Old and New

It is no secret that we continue to be played and deceived by industries, corporations, associations, and political parties in ways that benefit only their interests. At the same time, this deception is causing proven and quantifiable harm to their customers, the rest of society and the planet.  This practice became a formalized and documented discipline in the mid-twentieth century with the creation and development of The Playbook.  This post will highlight the evil brilliance, success and recurrence of The Playbook as well as the evolution of this insidious practice, and bring awareness to effective techniques and strategies to deal with its pervasive deception and manipulation.

The impetus for this post came from a great book and documentary entitled Merchants of Doubt.



The Creation of The Playbook

In December 1952, Reader’s Digest printed a scathing article entitled “Cancer by the Carton” which had a profound impact on the tobacco industry.  Following its publication, cigarette sales plummeted. This marked the industry’s first decline of the century, the only exception being The Great Depression.  A year later, the CEOs of the country’s major tobacco companies organized a secret meeting in New York City.

The objective of the gathering was to counter the damage created by the studies and subsequent media storm linking smoking to lung cancer. Their solution was to recruit public relations counsel, Hill and Knowlton.  What the team realized was that they could not deny evidence, but they could create and leverage doubt in order to delay legislative, regulatory, and legal actions that were threatening to erode profits.

Soon after was the introduction of The Playbook, otherwise known as “Bad Science: A Resource Book.”  The Playbook was a detailed how-to “handbook for fact fighters, providing example after example of successful strategies for undermining science, and a list of experts with scientific credentials available to comment on any issue about which a think tank or corporation needed a negative sound bite” (Oreskes & Conway, p. 6, 2010).

In this battle, the two competing camps could be labelled science and legal.  Scientists employ the scientific method, whose very nature demands that they keep an open mind and re-evaluate their conclusions and hypotheses when new data is presented.  The legal perspective represents the industry and its allies, who have a preferred position which they present to defend the position of their client. They come from a “take no prisoners” vantage point and use legal loopholes and manipulation to present their client in the most favourable light possible.

It is interesting to note that in most industry campaigns, employing The Playbook was never really about science or facts.  It was in actuality a political debate about the role of government, and the threat that governmental control of the economy posed to free enterprise and a liberal democracy. These strategies and tactics kept the cigarette industry protected from reality for over 50 years.

The Evolution of The Playbook Strategies for Deception

The strategies from The Playbook, though bold, were relatively simple and progressed gradually:

  • Fight science or the facts to manufacture doubt.
    • Argue that the facts are not known.
    • Argue that more research is required.
    • Question the science that is damaging your brand, or position it as “junk” science.
    • Position that there is no scientific consensus; that there is doubt or uncertainty in the scientific community.
    • Position that the scientists who make the unpopular statements against the industry are making political and not scientific statements.
    • Work towards gaining users’ trust through the use of authority figures – find (and financially reward) scientists and resources that are perceived to be credible and independent who deliver research and perspectives that instil doubt.
    • Attack the credible scientists.
  • Play up the misleading “health benefits” of using a product.
  • Shift the blame to someone or some other industry.
  • Identify potential threats so you can neutralize them.
  • Identify shills to become independent third party allies.
  • Create controversy.
  • Focus on the negative impacts of the science communities and governments perceived attack on personal freedom.
  • Emphasize personal responsibility in making decisions, not regulatory overhead.
  • Make self-regulatory pledges.
  • Lobby with massive resources to stifle government action.
  • Foster a “take no prisoners” approach to debate.


The Playbook Advocates

Strategies from The Playbook tend to be employed by industries that are under threat of losing profits. This is initiated when scientific evidence proves that their product causes significant harm to the public, society or planet in some shape or form.  The following industries have employed strategies outlined in The Playbook:

IndustryHarm they caused, and hid from, society
DDT PesticidesPoisonous (affects bees and pollination)
AsbestosPoisonous insulation
SugarHealth issues, weight gain, diabetes
High Fructose Corn SyrupHealth issues, weight gain, diabetes
Fossil Fuels (Coal & Oil)Environmental (greenhouse effect, global warming, ozone layer, acid rain)
Flame RetardantsPoisonous, health issues, ineffective fire prevention
Tanning BedsCancer
Fast FoodHealth issues, weight gain, diabetes
SodaHealth issues, weight gain, diabetes
GunsMisuse of guns exacerbated by a lack of gun control laws
Bisphenol A (BPA)Health issues, poisonous


Strategies to Combat The Playbook that Provide a Glimmer of Hope

The silver lining is that once the truth has been revealed, it can never be concealed again. We witnessed this with tobacco, flame-retardant furniture, asbestos, DDT pesticides and BPA to name a few.  Fortunately, reality always seems to sneak through and delay tactics can be stopped dead in their tracks by legislation, law suits or a shift in public awareness as people come to realize and accept the facts.  In the end, nations do behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.

What can we do?  Stay informed, listen to multiple perspectives and listen to the scientists.  Be aware that your “tribe” may be making assumptions that are not sound, for the exclusive benefit of others and at a cost to you. The Merchants of Doubt – College Study Guide is a useful reference to understand how to deal with these debates.

Appendix A: Precis of Big Tobacco Playbook Strategies

The trigger: The 1952 Reader’s Digest article was the primary vehicle for the tobacco industry’s creation and usage of The Playbook.

On January 4, 1954, the tobacco industry released its first position called The Frank Statement.  This was a milestone advertisement coordinated by the major American tobacco companies. It was featured in over 400 newspapers targeted at an estimated 43 million people throughout the United States. It disputed reports that smoking cigarettes could cause lung cancer and other dangerous health effects, and promised to faithfully conduct research and work with the health industry to mitigate any issues.  This was the first step in the charade to run a concerted, half-century-long campaign designed to mislead Americans (and the world) about the catastrophic effects of smoking and to avoid public policy that might damage profit.

What followed were a series of initiatives where tobacco companies worked together to convince the public that there was “no sound scientific basis for the charges” and that the recent reports were simply “sensational accusations” made by publicity-seeking scientists hoping to attract more funds for their research. Industry documents later unearthed the repeated duplicity of its terrified executives, under the gun of enormous financial pressures. The industry developed strategies to influence public opinion, legislation, litigation, and the conduct of science because they wanted desperately to prevent, or at least delay, shifts in public opinion that would unleash a barrage of legislative, regulatory, and legal actions that could destroy sales and profits.

The key was to ensure that the tobacco industry had access to subject matter experts who appeared independent and provided reasonable doubt and passion to defend the industry’s position.  They also had to establish independent scientific research institutes to analyze the real data and science behind the perceived liberal scare tactics.

They said there was no definitive evidence proving that smoking causes lung cancer. The studies being released were junk science, orchestrated by advocates “out to get” the tobacco industry. Next, they denied that second-hand smoke was killing people. They even denied that nicotine was addictive.

The industry was unremittingly dishonest and manipulative.  The table below provides some concrete examples extracted from documents sent to Stanton Glantz. In 1994, Glantz received an anonymous package containing thousands of pages of internal documents from Brown & Williamson, exposing the dishonesty behind the tobacco industry.

What the industry knew and whenWhat industry said and when
1958 – Heavy smoking contributes to lung cancer (A1-B1-F5)1984 – It is not known whether cigarettes cause cancer
1963 – [We are] disturbed at study’s implications re cardiovascular disorders (B1-B1-F5)1984 – No causal relationship between cigarette smoking and heart disease
1963 – We are in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug (C1-B1-F5)1994 – All the major tobacco companies told Congress that nicotine was not addictive



Bad Science: A Resource Book, 26 March 1993, BN: 2074143969, Legacy Tobacco Documents Library.

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Peter Milsom

Peter Milsom is an entrepreneurial advocate for sensible, sustainable change delivery practice. Peter has come to realize that sustainability is the perfect catalyst for Project / Programme / Portfolio / Risk / Value / Business Case and Benefits Management improvement. As an entrepreneurial methodologist Peter's unique value proposition is the vast array of tools and techniques that he brings to every engagement using the most cost effective and efficient methods based on the situation and tailored to meet your needs. This is based on his unique combination of experience and extensive training / certifications in change delivery, value / risk / benefits management business case, and business architecture.

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