The PR man 60 Minutes dubbed “Dr. Evil” – Rick Berman – launched a new ad campaign this month against Chipotle.
The profits of the fast food Mexican-style burrito company – which promotes whole foods over heavily processed factory food-type products – have surged while competitors like McDonalds and Burger King have tumbled. Chipotle has drawn a line in the sand on GMOs with its “G-M-Over It” campaign, as Americans’ concerns about genetically modified foods are growing.
Berman told investigative reporter Anna Werner of CBS News that no client specifically asked him to run this new ad campaign against Chipotle.
As the Center for Media and Democracy has previously documented, Berman’s modus operandi is to promise the corporations and industries who fund his work that he will keep their names out of it (listen to audio below).
Berman’s For-Profit Profits Big From His Non-Profits
Either way, one of Berman’s tactics is to attack opponents so that clients or donors don’t have to get their hands dirty as they manage the image of their brands. And he has gotten very rich in the process.
Berman’s for-profit PR firm, Berman & Co., received $757,379 as a “management fee” from his non-profit charity dubbed the “Center for Consumer Freedom.” That is, 60% of the money the Center for Consumer Freedom spent from tax-deductible donations from for-profit firms, CEOs, or other non-profits like foundations went directly into his coffers. The funds did not have to transfer very far since the Center is co-located at Berman & Company’s headquarters in Washington, DC. That nearly million dollars in fees were not for advertising, as the Center for Consumer Freedom reported those costs separately as $224,000 in ad expenses. The Center for Consumer Freedom also spent more than $37,000 on travel that year, again not in the fee Berman basically paid to himself for managing the non-profit.
Berman’s Center for Consumer Freedom is just one of several non-profits managed by Berman that have this kind of arrangement.
CBS News interviewed the Center for Media and Democracy’s Executive Director, Lisa Graves, about Berman’s history of profiting big from his non-profits through the arrangement he makes with himself for management fees. As CMD noted, Berman’s mission is to do PR attacks that help the corporations whose millions in donations and payments have gone into his coffers.
CMD’s SourceWatch.org site notes that Berman’s PR operations have been tied to a number of fast food companies in the past—including Burger King, Wendy’s, Arby’s, and Jack in the Box, as well as trade groups representing those industries. Although Berman’s latest attack ads accuse Chipotle’s food of being fattening, the corporations he’s fronted for in the past are known for very high-calorie foods, including chains like Hooters, which specializes in deep-fried chicken wings and more.
Berman is over a decade late in expressing “concern” over calories. Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” documentary from 2004 is still tied in many consumer’s minds with McDonalds. And, among other things, Berman fought hard against efforts to regulate the size of high-calorie sodas in New York City just a few years ago.
Berman’s Attack Strategy Caught on Tape
Attacks like the one on Chipotle are part of Berman’s stock in trade. He’s also running ads attacking efforts to increase the minimum wage. He has also repeatedly attacked factor-farming opponents, particularly the Humane Society, which has responded to Berman’s attack on Chipotle here.
And, late last year, Berman was caught on tape in audio provided to CMD last fall telling oil and gas companies how he could attack their environmental opponents, like Greenpeace and Sierra Club, for them.
Here is an excerpt from CMD’s PRWatch article by Lisa Graves about Berman’s PR pitch to energy corporations, which reveals a kind of Ten Commandments from the Dr. Evil playbook:
1. “Screw” your enemy. Berman boasted about his obsession with unions and his attack on their efforts to raise the minimum wage for American workers: “I get up every morning and I try and figure out how to screw with the labor unions.” Listen to this clip here.
2. “Marginalize” your opponents. Berman described his tactics against public interest groups: “wherever possible I like to use humor to minimize or marginalize the people on the other side.” Listen to this clip here.
3. “Demolish the moral authority” of powerful public interest voices: “I got George McGovern to come out and say that unions were wrong. I represent some alcohol companies, I got Candy Lightner, who started Mothers Against Drunk Driving, to come out and say that MADD was overreaching and that she endorsed our position, our client position, rather than the MADD position. That is a demolishing of moral authority.” Listen to this clip here.
4. “Make it personal.” Berman’s associate Hubbard described how they go after concerned citizens who dare to challenge their clients: “we do have a section on every single activist. Their rap sheets, their criminal records they have. We’re really making this personal. We’re trying to make it so they don’t have any credibility with the public, with the media, or with the legislators.” Listen to this clip here.
5. “Brand” whole movements as “not credible.” Berman & Co. detailed their game plan to try to marginalize people concerned about fracking, as noted by Bloomberg media: “what we wanted to do is that we wanted to brand the entire movement behind this as not being credible, and anti-science.” Listen to this clip here.
6. Being “nasty” wins. Berman shakes off concerns that his activities are too nasty or aggressive, saying “you can either win ugly or lose pretty.” Listen to this clip here.
7. Push “fear and anger.” Berman talked about pushing people’s emotional buttons on fear, love, anger, greed, and sympathy, stating: “you could not get into people’s heads and convince them to do something as easily as you could get into their hearts or into their gut to convince to do something. Because, emotions drive people much better than intellectual epiphanies.” Listen to this clip here.
8. Treat public policy as “endless war.” Berman recognized that the public interest groups are appealing to the American people: “If you think about it these groups, the Sierra Club, who is the natural enemy of the Sierra Club? Who is the enemy of Greenpeace? You know at the surface, you would love to be a group like that because everyone should be in favor of you, who could be against you? That’s very difficult to over come and they play on that, and they trade on that, and that’s our opportunity and also our challenge. So it is an endless war.” Listen to this clip here.
9. Give corporate cash “total anonymity.” Berman reassured his audience that he can keep their role in these tactics secret: “We run all of this stuff through nonprofit organizations that are insulated from having to disclose donors. There is total anonymity. People don’t know who supports us. We’ve been doing this for 20 something years in this regard. And to the degree to anybody is concerned about that I will tell you there are all sorts of ways, all sorts of firewalls that have been established to get this done on an anonymous basis.” He added: “I am religious about not allowing company names to ever get used. At least I’m not going to allow them to get used. And I don’t want companies to ever admit that because it does give the other side a way to diminish our message.” Listen to this clip here.
10. Tear down celebrities who speak out. Berman’s associate Hubbard noted that taking down celebrities who speak up is a key part of their strategy because: “the problem is that the public really does have a celebrity worship culture. But the good news is that there is nothing the public likes more than tearing down celebrities and playing up the hypocrisy angle.” Listen to this clip here.
Meanwhile, Berman and Co. routinely tries to label opponents n the public interest communities as “hypocrites” whenever possible even as he goes to great lengths to hide the money trail between him and his clients. His attack on Chipotle is another variation on this theme, without apologies for the tobacco, alcohol, and fast food companies he has had long relationships with.