The Plaza, December 1953-was this the start of the Decline of the West?

There’s a lively debate on both sides of the Atlantic about the decline of western nations from their former dominance, and the rise of other powers as serious rivals for the first time in centuries. This declinist anxiety is said to be behind the victories of Trump and Brexit, and many other things. Certainly, declinists have a point; western nations such as the USA and Britain are no longer the automatic role models they once were. But they were so big once- why the big decline, like old boxers going to seed?

Historians usually point that the key advantage to the western nations came with the Enlightenment in the early eighteenth century, when the culture of reason and evidence began to be exalted above all else. Science is simply the practical application of reason and evidence, and it led to crucial advances in industrial production, navigation and education that left other cultures far behind. Well, they’re not behind anymore, as fumbled responses to Covid-19 demonstrate. It feels like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, continually asking himself: when did it all go wrong?

One strong contender has to be December 1953 at the Plaza Hotel in New York, where a meeting of the top CEOs of the tobacco industry was convened to decide their response to the terrible mess that they were in. Because it was in these years that the first scientifically researched, peer reviewed studies were appearing that showed the link between their products and lung cancer. It looked as if the game was up. Did they apologise and close down their companies? No. Decide to pay compensation? No. Go into educational publishing? No. They hired a PR firm instead. And what a PR firm all that tobacco money could buy-Hill and Knowlton, the best of the best. These are the basic steps they took, and they have formed the basis of many a commercial response to science ever since.

What follows is a summary of an academic paper so well written that it can be taken with your evening cocoa, like a thriller: Inventing Conflicts of Interest: A history of Tobacco Industry Tactics by Allan M Brandt. So please, please read it for your self on the link below.

1 Decide your overarching strategy, which was- If the culture doesn’t like your product, change the culture. So that any attempts of practical litigation or legislation to mitigate the activities of your industry are so hampered that they become negligible.

2 Appear objective and compliant; the best PR leaves no fingerprints

3 Manufacture sufficient doubt, or impression of doubt, that your enemies’ aims become mired in confusion in the minds of the public.. Thus natural differences of opinion can be manipulated to produce “skeptics”, whose noble appearance of “dissent” may mask the motives of other interests

4 Use the skeptics to control the media agenda; one skeptic can represent balance and controversy to lazy journalists, however many reasoned exponents are lined up on the other side

5 Using all your money create an industry research body, to move the focus of research safely away from your product. Feed the public lines like: “we will get more facts as soon as possible.” “There are many possible causes of cancer”. “There is no conclusive proof of the link between smoking and cancer.” (personal note: we remember a relative of ours replaying that line in 1971. He died many years ago of cancer)

6 Continue to use your financial muscle to associate your product with such perceived virtues as being grown up, manliness, sex, wealth and the Great Outdoors. (this is our own, not Brandt’s, but we liked it so much it had to go in)

Surely all this didn’t work? Surely human beings are rational, independent creatures who can look at the evidence and decide for themselves? In 1954 the industry sold 369 billion cigarettes and had a per capita consumption of 3344 cigarettes annually. By 1961 these figures were 488 billion and 4025 cigarettes respectively. And some people say there is no such thing as progress.

Outside the industry, things were less rosy. Aside from all those pesky deaths from cancer. emphysema and the like, all that money up in smoke, and sad lives cut horribly short, there was a long term cultural damage which we at LSS believes explains much of our present plight.

For the first time, the normative processes of science had been significantly disrupted for commercial gain. The honest concepts of scepticism and doubt had been manipulated into weapons to confuse and deny. The emotional genius of PR now trumped the rational spirit of science. And people in industry, business and politics had learned that it could be done again. And again.

The rise and fall of nations is as much about technologies as demographics. Brains can often prevail over numbers. If a society becomes blind to its real sources of strength, its fall cannot be long delayed.

#allanmbrandt #tobaccopr #edwardbernays #cancer #smoking

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