“Who are those guys?”
That’s the question that keeps popping up in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The pair of outlaws find themselves pursued by a posse of lawmen. Try as they might, Butch and the Kid cannot throw them off their trail, thus the exasperated query.
Fifteen years ago, some Americans must have asked the same question about a bunch of tax-exempt greens under the banner of the Natural Resources Defense Council. In 1989, “those guys” pulled off the mother of all publicity coups, which became the model for subsequent enviro campaigns.
If the NRDC’s coup was made into a movie, it might be called The Great Alar Caper — Alar being the trade name of a chemical then used by apple growers to delay ripening. Turns out, the longer apples stay on the tree, the better chance they have of developing a nice, shiny look, which fetches top dollar in stores. Alar prevented apples from rotting prematurely during this natural process.
The problem: A 1973 study suggested Alar had carcinogenic properties. After mulling it over, in 1985, the Environmental Protection Agency drew up plans to phase out its use. But then additional research made the EPA think that Alar might not contribute to cancer after all.
UNHAPPY WITH THE pace of the EPA, which was wary of acting on brittle evidence, members of the NRDC went to work. They produced their own study playing up the supposed dangers of Alar, entitled “Intolerable Risk: Pesticides in Our Children’s Food,” and hired a PR company, Fenton Communications, to spread word of the study.
Here’s where the Alar Caper starts to pick up steam. In the words of journalist Peter Carlson, “Fenton engineered a PR campaign that was the worst thing to happen to the apple since Eve.”
Working together, Fenton and NRDC did something unprecedented — they saturated the media with scare-stories about Alar. A top Fenton executive documented the campaign’s successes in a memo written after the PR guns had fallen silent:
“Media coverage,” he boasted, “included two segments on CBS 60 Minutes, the covers of Time and Newsweek…the Phil Donahue show, multiple appearances on Today, Good Morning America, and CBS This Morning, several stories on each of the network evening newscasts, MacNeil/Lehrer, multiple stories in the N.Y. Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times and newspapers around the country, three stories in USA Today, People, four women’s magazines with a combined circulation of 17 million (Redbook, Family Circle, Women’s Day and New Woman), and thousands of repeat stories in local media around the nation and world…”
It was a surprisingly good return on an investment of just $26,000 public relations dollars over five months. Apple sales plummeted and then dropped even further when actress Meryl Streep became a spokeswoman for the cause of banning Alar, which set off another round of scare stories, this time with a celebrity angle.
The greens’ victory was total. Within weeks of Streep testifying before Congress, Uniroyal, the company that manufactured Alar, began the triage to save its reputation, withdrawing the chemical from the U.S. market. In November of 1989, the EPA ordered a ban on the sale, distribution and use. The NRDC reaped enormous publicity, and its PR firm patted itself on the back. “We submit,” a Fenton exec modestly wrote, “this campaign as a model for other non-profit organizations.”
THE EXEC WAS RIGHT, of course. One observer called the “apples, children, cancer” formula “irresistible.” The media offensive was criticized by many toxicologists who were, and remain, unconvinced that Alar posed a health threat. But careful science was quickly overridden by the hysteria over the possibility that apples could be killing children.
It’s a formula other green non-profits have been aping ever since: Compose a study; use Madison Avenue techniques to create a media buzz, enlist celebrity support; boil the issue down to easy-to-understand, often misleading terms that can be repeatedly endlessly (e.g., “apples, children, cancer”; “fishing nets, canned tuna, dead dolphins”; “SUVs, Mid-East oil, terrorism”) and hope the issue catches fire. If they strike a nerve, and spark a panicked stampede by consumers, then their place in the history books is secured.