“Playbook” is a term that seems overused at the moment – mainly because of Vladimir Putin’s military adventures. We now know full well that his playbook, deployed in Chechnya, then Syria and now Ukraine, involves heavy bombardment of civilian areas in an attempt to demoralize and crush a population towards eventual defeat. The end goal is Putin’s demonstration of ruthlessness – one of his main tools for retaining power. Jennifer Jacquet’s The Playbook is about something else entirely – the methods corporations use to “deny science, sell lies and kill”. The details couldn’t be more different. And yet, in some fundamental and particular respects, the strategies are similar.
Jacquet chooses a somewhat unusual way to get his ideas across, writing in the style of a useful guide for companies facing scientific evidence that could “pose a risk to business operations”. Readers might assume that some companies have used some of these dodgy methods to push back unwanted searches from time to time, but they probably wouldn’t think it was a systemic problem. However, it doesn’t take long to realize that Jacquet is right – that using these tactics truly amounts to a playbook that almost every industry has resorted to at some point. The weight of evidence she accumulates, chapter by chapter, is indisputable.
Companies need to build an arsenal of individuals, institutions and communication networks to champion their case, she explains. “Each actor will use a unique approach and leave a different trail of evidence that will make it difficult to reconstruct a larger whole,” she suggests. Examples include the $450 million provided by cigarette companies to the Tobacco Research Council, which has led to over 7,000 sympathetic scientific papers; or a network of professors and think tanks created by the agrochemical industry to defend the herbicide glyphosate.
Of course, companies can use public relations firms, which is obvious. But why not also create a professional association? They “can work on behalf of an entire industry so that no brand seems responsible,” writes Jacquet, pointing out that their names can even suggest a more formal organization: the National Fisheries Institute in the United States, for example, rings at some as a government agency. (Later in the book, she also lists some of the trade associations that have changed names: CropLife America, which represents pesticide manufacturers, was formerly the American Crop Protection Association and before that the National Agricultural Chemicals Association.)
Why not start a consumer advocacy group? Jacquet claims that in the 1990s, Monsanto hired the public relations firm Edelman to create a “grassroots group” to oppose the labeling of GM foods. Other potential allies include law firms, community foundations, private investigators and, best of all, academic experts. This latter group is so gold-plated that they have an entire chapter to themselves, which draws the deflating conclusion that “college professors are almost never forced to resign over non-disclosure issues.”
Satirical vanity can become scathing. And despite the book’s subtitle, given the deadpan way it’s written, some might be confused as to the author’s intent. There is no introduction, but Jacquet includes analysis in a “letter to his editor” which appears in the appendix: “Each maneuver has a sleight of hand”, she writes, “but the end result of this strategy is not just a card trick… [it] more like a casino, with its architecture and design calculated… to keep people comfortable and playing as long as possible.
In his thought-provoking 2012 history of power, Merchant, Soldier, Sage, historian David Priestland argues that the struggles between these three power networks (or “castes” as he prefers to call them) are the main drivers of power. history, with the dominant merchants over the past 30 years in much of the developed world. Putin is, of course, from the warrior caste.
Just as Machiavelli taught us the weapons and tactics a Renaissance prince might use to get ahead, and Putin’s playbook lays out the macabre possibilities of the modern warrior, Jacquet lists the very different weapons that the merchants use to retain their own power. Most of us won’t ever need to use any of these tools, but there’s a reason Machiavelli’s book is a classic: As humble citizens, we can get suspicious about battle. ongoing, but it’s rare for the protagonists to be completely honest about what they’re doing. Jacquet provided a useful but depressing overview of the arsenal available to the corporate world.