MAY 1989 - VOLUME 10 - NUMBER 5
C O R P O R A T E P R O F I L E
by Russell Mokhiber
Ogilby& Mather, the giant advertising and public relations firm, has devised an international operation to "neutralize critics" of infant formula, according to an internal Ogilvy and Mather document leaked to the media last month. The document and conversations with those who drafted it indicate that Nestle and Ogilvy were interested in an "early warning system" that would tip off Nestle to decisions of local church groups on whether to join the boycott. A Nestle spokesperson told the Monitor that the company rejected the recommendations, but remains an Ogilvy client.
Nestle hired Ogilvy in February 1989 to help control the negative publicity it was receiving from a boycott launched by citizens groups concerned about the marketing of infant formula in Third World countries where the water used to mix the formula is often unsanitary. This combination leads to illness and death for hundreds of thousands of babies each year. An earlier boycott launched in 1977 was called off in April 1984, when boycott organizers deemed Nestle to be in compliance with the World Health Organization's (WHO) infant formula marketing code. But organizers called for a renewed boycott in 1988, charging that Nestle had changed its practices and was not adhering to the code. Nestle says it adheres to the WHO code and has never been charged by WHO with violating the code. But no company has ever been charged for violating the code because WHO has no legal authority to sanction corporations for violations, according to organizers of the Nestle boycott.
The O & M document, titled "Proactive Neutralization: Nestle Recommendation Regarding the Infant Formula Boycott," was obtained by Multinational Monitor. The program outlined in the O & M document is "built around the idea of neutralizing or defusing the issue by quietly working with key interest groups" and argues that "activities should be implemented as soon as possible in order to most effectively preempt boycott activities." Both Ogilvy and Nestle distanced themselves from the document and the program after it was obtained by the media. Regardless of assurances from Nestle and Ogilvy, boycott organizers are troubled by the section of the Ogilvy plan that gives responsibility to Ogilvy "for interest group assessment and monitoring." The objective, according to the document, is to "initiate an early warning system through which Nestle gains awareness of actions being planned, and is equipped to take appropriate proactive or reactive steps." A second objective of the plan is to "neutralize critics." The document doesn't explain the word neutralize.
The O&M plan also suggests that Nestle sponsor a "Nestle Positive Image Campaign" to run on Channel One, a 12-minute daily satellite television news show produced by Whittle Communications. Channel One was designed "to inform students of the world around them, in a way that stimulates and promotes questions." The show plans to reach 8,000 schools by the fall of 1989. "There is an existing opportunity to be a (or THE) major sponsor of Channel One," the document implores. "The idea for Nestle, however, is not to advertise, but to donate the 30 seconds on daily/weekly air time for Nestle-sponsored additional daily news programming: FOOD FOR THOUGHT."
Tim Atwater, a spokesperson for the Minneapolis based Action for Corporate Responsibility called the "neutralization" plan "disturbing" and said that the language of the proposal "smacks of CIA lingo." Atwater told the Monitor that Nestle has exhibited a "clear pattern of subterfuge." Recalling Nestle's campaign to discredit the boycott a decade ago, Atwater said that the company then sought "to tar us with being communist because we were opposed to their marketing strategy."
Tim Smith, head of Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) also remembers that this is not the first time that Nestle has used such duplicitous tactics: "Unfortunately this new revelation reminds the churches of Nestle's frequent use of dirty tricks and facile public relations almost a decade ago. The church community calls on Nestle to deal with the real issue of formula supply and infant health rather than taking the low road in a diversionary public relations campaign." Smith expressed surprise at Nestle's decision to maintain its relationship with Ogilvy & Mather. It may be difficult for the public to believe in the sincerity of Nestle's condemnation of the O & M plan, in light of the decision to continue as a client of the public relations firm.