One of the watershed public relations moments for the organic and natural foods industry came in 1989, after 60 Minutes produced a report criticizing the Food and Drug Administration’s oversight of chemicals used in foods. The segment featured a chemical called Daminozide, a food growth regulator used on apples and marketed under the name Alar by the Uniroyal Chemical Company. The report said that scientists had linked Alar to cancer in lab animals. The result was a public relations boon for organic/natural foods, and a public relations disaster for Uniroyal.
Following the 60 Minutes piece, demand for natural and organic foods untreated with pesticides and other chemicals jumped as school cafeterias yanked apples and people reportedly threw out apples and dumped apple juice down the drain. Uniroyal, now part of Chemtura, pulled Alar from the market and the Food and Drug Administration soon banned the chemical, which had been in use for over thirty years. The non-profit group the Natural Resources Defense Council was the driving force behind the campaign, utilizing actress Meryl Streep as a spokesperson.
Lab tests by more than one organization eventually showed that a human would have to ingest an impossible quantity of apples or apple juice each day during his or her lifetime for the chemical to cause damage. The Food and Drug Administration, however, had considered Alar a human carcinogen before it became a public issue, and later testing suggested a five-in-one-million chance of cancer from long-term Alar ingestion. Additionally, some supermarket chains and at least two states had banned Alar before the 60 Minutes broadcast.
Apple growers, meanwhile, suffered in the short-term as sales of apples fell and they were forced to destroy crops already treated with Alar. A group of Washington apple growers unsuccessfully sued CBS over the 60 Minutes report, claiming losses of $100 million. The group’s lawsuit, however, eventually prompted more than a dozen states to put food libel laws on the books, as Oprah Winfrey found out in 1996 when she was famously sued by National Cattleman’s Beef Association.
The “Alar scare,” as it has become known, continues to be a subject of debate. Industries and corporations often cite it to portray the public as susceptible to scare tactics from environmentalists and the media, claiming that third parties operating under the guise of unbiased watchdogs are sometimes organizations supported by their competitors. Opponents of the food chemical industry point to the fact that Alar is an actual carcinogen, and that the 60 Minutes piece was a broader indictment of how the government failed to protect people from dangerous chemicals.
The term “Alar scare” is sometimes used to describe reports or media campaigns that rely on pseudo-science or scare tactics. Some people said reports of a looming sub-prime crisis were nothing more than an Alar scare. On the opposite end of the effect, apple sales returned to normal levels about four months after the 60 Minutes report in 1989 and quickly began to grow again.
From a public relations standpoint, the key to taking advantage of an Alar scare is to swiftly provide the media with detailed information about your product and how it’s safer than the product that sparked the scare. During a recent scare over contaminated pet food, competing companies quickly moved to issue press releases and post notices on their web sites that their own food was safe. Retailers acted similarly, posting information in stores and pushing customers towards higher-priced (and higher-margin) organic products.
Successful public relations teams will use an Alar scare in a way that promotes their product without taking cheap shots. Consumers are in desperate need of an alternative; what they want is information about a safe product. You can provided this information without denigrating a competitor’s product. After all, the competitor’s product is already under immense scrutiny.
I recently finished reading Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock. The book tells the tale of John R. Brinkley, a pioneer in the field of public relations, advertising, media manipulation, and hucksterism.
Brinkley claimed to be a doctor, though he never graduated from an actual medical school. Brinkley saw an opportunity in the craze for rejuvenation products following World War I, one spurred in Europe by the deaths of so many young men; in America, rejuvenation productions swept the country thanks to an influenza outbreak and the fear that America’s white population would soon be overrun. (Brinkley was not explicit in this regard at first, but eventually he exploited such fears in his promotional strategy.) John R. Brinkley opened a hospital in a small Kansas town and began implanting goat testicles in humans, claiming that the surgery provided “pep” to those in need.
Over the next twenty years, John R. Brinkley amassed a fortune by peddling useless surgeries and tonics. Along the way, he launched the most powerful radio station in America, came close to becoming the Governor of Kansas, developed the idea of equipping trucks with loud speakers to promote political candidates, re-invented the concept of advertising, and killed or maimed possibly hundreds, if not thousands, of people with phony medical procedures and poisonous tonics.
While Brinkley was certainly a charlatan, he was also brilliant when it came to understanding the part of peoples’ brains driven by their fears. He marketed towards men in such a way that he made them fear their wives would leave them, and towards women in a manner that appealed to their fears of living unhappy and unfulfilled lives, in and out of the bed.
What’s most intriguing about Brinkley’s story is how Morris Fishbein, the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, shadowed the “doctor” throughout his career in an effort to debunk and destroy him. Fishbein was accused of using Alar scare tactics himself, an ironic twist considering that’s how Brinkley built his dynasty.
Alar scares are typically massive public relations headaches for those companies and organizations that produce and retail the targeted products. However, these same situations can provide other companies and organizations with great public relations opportunities.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.