The house was raised above the ground, like a mushroom or a white ray gun, its rooms radiating out like spokes of a wheel. It was 1957 and this was the “House of the Future,” a prototype modular house created by Monsanto, in collaboration with M.I.T. to help solve the housing crisis baby boom America was in the middle of. Not coincidentally, the house was made of plastic, one of Monsanto’s products at the time.
“They imagined fast subdivisions of this house, like Levittown,” says Gary Van Zante, curator of architecture and design at the M.I.T. Museum.
While that never happened, Walt Disney did select it as an exhibition at his new Disneyland. For 10 years, until it was torn down, the chemical giant’s creation stood peacefully in The Happiest Place On Earth, where millions of people marveled at it.
It is safe to say that if Monsanto’s pod house were erected there today, it would not be such a happy home.
Over the past decade, Monsanto has become a pop cultural bogeyman, the face of corporate evil. The company and its genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds have been the subject of muckraking documentaries (“Forks Over Knives” and “GMO OMG“), global protests, and assaults by everybody from environmental activists to “The Colbert Report.” Facebook and other social media are awash in memes (here’s a blog devoted to the topic) and hashtags like #monsantoevil. And it seems everyone, from your plumber to your mother, has an opinion about the company. This past year, when Monsanto bought a weather data company called the Climate Corporation for about $1 billion, David Friedberg, the company’s CEO, found himself bending over backwards justifying his decision to sell. (As if the money wasn’t enough reason!) Friedberg told the New Yorker that even his father disapproved: “His first reaction was, ‘Monsanto? The most evil company in the world? I thought you were trying to make the world a BETTER place?’” (Friedberg also felt compelled to write a letter to his entire staff, laying out his rationale for Monsanto’s aptness as a new owner.) In short, you don’t need to have a degree in marketing and communications to see that Monsanto has a PR problem.
How did this happen? How did Monsanto go from the future of American innovation to a late-night punchline? Critics point to their role in GMOs, creating “frankenfood,” but Monsanto is not the only company that produces genetically modified organisms. And though it has a bad environmental record, so do lots of companies. Also, unlike, say, other corporate villains like General Motors (the antihero of Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me”) Monsanto is not a consumer facing company, and its actual biotechnological workings are mystifying to the average person. Yet somehow it manages to serve as a focal point for popular fear and rage about everything from political pandering to globalization. Why?
The answer, of course, is complicated but numerous experts point to a fuse: the bungled launch of GMO seeds in Europe in the late ’90s that progressed into a vicious war of disinformation that shows little sign of abating.
If you set aside for a moment from the usual debate about whether GMOs are bad or good, a curious fact emerges. For a rich and powerful company that seems to excel at nearly everything it does, Monsanto sucks in one important aspect: spin control.
Let the Record Reflect
Before Monsanto became the face of industrial agriculture, it courted controversy in other ways – namely, as a chemical company. Founded in 1901, Monsanto was one of a handful of companies that produced Agent Orange, and its main poison, Dioxin. It sold DDT, PCBs, the controversial dairy cow hormone, rBGH, and the cancer-linked Aspartame sweetener.
Starting in the ’80s, however, Monsanto shed its chemicals and plastics divisions, bought up seed companies, invested in bio genetics research, and ultimately reincorporated itself as an agricultural company. Its first GMO product, the patented Glyphosate-resistant, “Round-Up Ready” soybean, was approved by the USDA in 1994. But most Americans hadn’t heard of Monsanto until it tried to sell the seeds to Europe. That’s when things turned sour.
If you set aside the debate about whether GMOs are bad or good, a curious fact emerges. For a rich and powerful company that seems to excel at nearly everything it does, Monsanto sucks in one important aspect: spin control.
In 1996, the U.K. was reeling from the Mad Cow disease epidemic, in which the British Government insisted the highly dangerous disease posed no risk to human health, while people were dying. Brits had gotten a fast education in the modern farm system and were primed to be suspicious of GMOs’ supposed safety. Although the seeds were approved by the European Union, consumers rebelled in England. Grocery store chains pushed back, tabloids printed stories about “Frankenfoods” and environmental groups such as Greenpeace swung into action with high-profile campaigns. Even Prince Charles, a longtime supporter of organic farming, wrote a newspaper editorial opining that genetic engineering “takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone.”
This reaction caught Monsanto execs off guard. As Dan Charles writes in his book, “Lords of the Harvest,” Philip Angell, the head of Monsanto’s corporate communications at the time, bemoaned that the Brits were the “sad sacks of Europe” for their suspicion of GMOs. But Monsanto believed it could overcome the problem.
“The predominant attitude at the company was, ‘If they don’t like it, if they try to block it, we can sue them,’” says a former Monsanto employee who asked to remain anonymous when speaking to Modern Farmer.
Monsanto responded with what was supposed to be a cleverly counterintuitive $1.6 million ad campaign that read: “Food biotechnology is a matter of opinions. Monsanto believes you should hear all of them.” The ads included the phone numbers of opposing groups, such as Greenpeace. But the advertisements struck their audience as glib and insincere.
Too little too late, Monsanto tried a different tack, engaging in a dialogue with stakeholders all over Europe. Monsanto’s then-CEO Robert Shapiro even apologized for the company’s condescension and arrogance at a Greenpeace meeting via video uplink in 1999. But the damage had been done. Monsanto emerged from the bungled launch of GMOs in the UK looking like a bully, and the image stuck.
The Terminator and the Rosy-Cheeked Canadian Farmer
And so, what started as a problem in England became fodder for a global conversation, in which environmental groups had the upper hand.
In 1998, Monsanto announced plans to acquire a seed company called Delta Pine and Land Company. Delta Pine had developed a patented seed that could only propagate once. “The Terminator,” as it was ingeniously dubbed by environmentalists, could not be saved and replanted by farmers, ostensibly forcing the farmers to have to buy fresh seed every year.
Summoning up negative emotional responses to “The Terminator” was a powerful PR tactic for environmentalists in the British GMO debate, and it only continued to be as the controversy caught on in the U.S. In fact, the seed proved such a hot potato that Monsanto never commercially introduced it. And yet, “The Terminator” continues to live on in anti-GMO rhetoric. In the 2009 documentary “David Versus Monsanto,” about a Canadian farmer who was sued by the seed giant (more on this later), “The Terminator” seed is presented as if it is a viable Monsanto product.
Environmental groups also capitalized on the public’s fear of the unknown, especially as it related to big emotional triggers of personal health and safety. A typical example, was Friends of the Earth‘s 1999 mailing campaign, which read: “How Safe is the Food You Eat?…The scary answer is no one really knows.” This set the pattern for our current debate about GMOs: even as scientists argue in the New York Times and elsewhere that the technology has not been shown to be bad to humans, it is hard to escape the notion that these kinds of crops are too new to be properly vetted. Monster analogies graft nicely onto such gray zones.
By not understanding, at least at first, the emotional dimensions of the debate, Monsanto has been unable to shake its image. By its own admission Monsanto views its patented GM seeds similarly to the way the software industry views its proprietary technology. Like somebody buying a copy of Photoshop, Monsanto binds its customers to a terms-of-service agreement when they buy their “technology.” (It includes stipulations such as the inability to save and replant the seed.) In the past, if the company has learned those terms have been violated, they have sued, or threatened to sue, farmers. Monsanto even has a hotline that people can call to alert them to patent infringements.
Although this makes sense from a business perspective, it’s problematic from a public relations perspective. The “technology” they’re selling is seeds, which have rich cultural and even spiritual associations that Photoshop does not. Seeds have historically been a part of the natural world that belongs to everybody and nobody, like dirt or the ocean. The customers at liability risk aren’t corporate IT departments, but rather, farmers. (“The Daily Show” pilloried this in a bit last year entitled: “Aasif Mandvi learns that greedy farmers have threatened the livelihood of Monsanto’s heroic patent attorneys.”)
The pitfalls of Monsanto’s approach are most glaringly evident in the case of Percy Schmeiser, a rosy-cheeked Canadian farmer who was successfully sued by Monsanto in 1998 after he refused to pay the licensing fee for growing Round-up Ready Canola. Schmeiser claimed that the GM canola seed had blown onto his farm by mistake, and he wasn’t infringing on Monsanto’s patent agreement because he did not intend to use Round-Up on the Canola. Some of the crucial facts of the case remain hotly disputed: how much of Schmeiser’s farm was planted with the GM canola, whether he knew what exactly he was growing and whether his claim that he wasn’t going to use Round-Up was truthful.
But these murky areas get lost in the broad brushstrokes that color public opinion. Schmeiser was made into the poster child for the innocent farmer sued by big, bad Monsanto. For the past several years, he’s been a regular on the ant-GMO lecture circuit and as the subject of the documentary, “David Versus Monsanto” helped paint the company in an unflattering light.
“The truth is Percy Schmeiser is not a hero. He’s simply a patent infringer who knows how to tell a good story.”
Monsanto is clearly a company that undervalues the power of storytelling.
The World Needs Villains
The debate about GMOs’ safety, both in terms of potential dangers to the environment and to human health, is complex. Proponents say there have been no studies proving that GM is harmful. Opponents say there have not been enough studies to convincingly prove it’s safe.
“The whole debate has gotten so very, very polarized,” says Glenn Stone, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, who has written extensively about GM. The less analytical and more emotional the conversation becomes, says Stone, the more the anti-GMO movement needs “bad guys” to “appeal to those parts of the brain that get excited and run on fury and outrage.” Monsanto has clearly become that bad guy in what he calls the “rhetorical death struggle” that is the GMO debate.
“Beneath all this is a fundamental disagreement about technology. At one end you have the… position, which suggests our innovations are hurting more then helping us. At the other end are the technological utopians who see restraints on innovation as intolerably prolonging the suffering that would end in a more perfect future.”
The discussion is important, writes Johnson, but very abstract. We need to have something concrete to attach it to, so we attach it to the debate about GMOs. And GMOs being abstract, still, we attach the debate to Monsanto.
Zeynep Arsel, an associate professor of marketing at Concordia University in Montreal, draws parallels to consumer backlash against Starbucks in the early 2000s.
“They also become this ”“ I don’t want to say scapegoat, but icons [representing] broader social problems.” In Starbucks’ case, the company was blamed for mistreatment of farmers, bad environmental practices and neighborhood gentrification, with varying degrees of fairness. Similarly, says Arsel, Monsanto becomes “symbolically linked to a loss of small farming practices, political alignments and other abstract concerns.”
Perhaps, also, it’s not surprising that Monsanto’s shift into agriculture has made it a target for consumer rage. Food companies are particularly vulnerable to public relations headaches. Historically, companies like Nestle, Coke, and McDonalds have been frequent targets of consumer protests, boycotts and media floggings. (Remember “Super Size Me”?) Although Monsanto doesn’t sell breakfast cereal or hamburgers, it does sell the raw materials, in a sense. And as compared to, say, worrying about the health of the ocean when BP spills oil into it, people worry more about their own health and safety. The idea that our food might be adulterated or cause harm is an easy thing to get worked up about.
In a New York Times poll conducted last July, almost a quarter of respondents said that they believed that GMO foods were unsafe to eat or were toxic. And nearly 93 percent supported a GM labeling law. (Monsanto’s position has been that there is a lack of scientific evidence backing up those claims, and that mandatory labels would inaccurately put fear in the heart of consumers. It has spent millions to defeat various state-level bills and ballot proposals.)
Monsanto has made many attempts, since the initial launch of its GM seeds, to paint itself in a better light through advertising. In a few campaigns, they’ve used language about “sustainability,” and in others, they’ve taken the humanizing approach by showing pictures of smiling farmers or Monsanto employees. They’re also attempting to spread the message of new, non-GMO produce initiatives — a recent Wired article was titled “Monsanto Is Going Organic in the Quest for the Perfect Veggie.”
None of these seem to have made any difference, however, at least in the popular debate. Eventually, probably, Monsanto will relinquish its villainous place in pop culture to another corporation. It’s certainly trying: as Politico reported this past fall, they have shaken up their internal public relations office and upped contracts with outside image consultants. (The story also noted that Monsanto is still raking in money: it finished 2013 with a 25 percent increase in sales, netting the company $2.5 billion in profit.) As the Climate Corporation’s Friedberg noted in his all-staff email, tech companies have begun to assume the mantle of the evil corporations — many see Google’s motto (“Don’t be evil”) as more ironic by the day.
For the time being, the relentless march of Monsanto Facebook memes (“Not sure if trying to feed the world or poison it”) and anti-GMO sentiment only seems to be pushing Monsanto farther into the evil camp: States have been legislating around GMO labeling and companies like Chipotle are promising to drop GMO products. If Monsanto has any hope of shifting public opinion towards a brighter future, it’s going to have to find a way to deal with its image today. No one is lining up to live in the house Monsanto built.