Sunday, July 08, 2007

Astroturf: More Effective Than Spam!

by Tom Bozzo

Now there's a title that would make no sense to Mr. or Ms. 1977. What does artificial grass have to do with a processed meat product? I don't suppose any blog reader would need a gloss on the new (indeed, now primary) meaning of "spam," but if you aren't aware, "astroturf" in this context means a corporate PR or political interest group action masquerading as a grass-roots effort.

Around here, our local TV broadcasters lately have been funded in large part (or so it seems) by ads sponsored by a group called "TV4US," which claims to want to give Wisconsin a "real choice to [sic*] cable TV." In this case, "US" is the sorta-new AT&T, which is keen to see pending legislation that would allow it to enter the cable TV business enacted. For a full rundown on the controversies surrounding the legislation, go see our blog pal Barry Orton at WaxingAmerica.

TV4US recently circulated a list of names of supporters of the legislation, which notoriously included the names of vocal opponents, including Paul Soglin (**) and Ed Garvey. A second round of bad press Friday concerned people who had signed up with TV4US in favor of cable TV competition who were advertised as supportive of the legislation. These included:
[Former Madison city council member Alicia] Ashman... Beverly Crosson, a state administrative law judge, and Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin.
Yes, you saw that correctly, the local director of Common Frackin' "Holding Power Accountable" Cause signed a petition from a group that's "the very definition of Astroturf" (yes, that quote is from a Common Cause webpage). Just goes to show that an advocacy ad which is "plainly... not the functional equivalent of express advocacy" can be a feature, not a bug.
"That's not honest grassroots lobbying," [Heck] said.
No kidding. The common thread among the irate TV4US respondees was that well, of course they want competition and lower cable rates. Who wouldn't? Naturally, preferences over policy solutions vary, leading one interviewee offers good (if not obvious) advice:
"Before signing up for something that seems so black and white and clear it's probably good to ask some questions before giving your name and address."
Quite. We'll never hear a "Tell Senators Kohl and Feingold that everyone loves apple pie" ad the same way again.

(*) This sounds weird to me, as if it's using "cable TV" as a verb. I guess this must have been judged less wonky-sounding than "choice of cable TV provider."

(**) We figure Barry would have kicked Paul's butt across town if he got anywhere near a TV4US petition. Maybe he can work on him with respect to this totally misguided post on the prospective Regional Transit Authority referendum.

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