“Playbook” is a term that feels overused at the moment – mostly because of Vladimir Putin’s military adventures. We now know all too well that his playbook, deployed in Chechnya, then Syria, and now Ukraine, involves heavy bombardment of civilian areas with the aim of demoralizing and grinding down a population towards eventual defeat. The end goal is the demonstration of Putin’s ruthlessness – one of his key tools for retaining power. Jennifer Jacquet’s The Playbook is about something else entirely – the methods corporations use to “deny science, sell lies, and make a killing”. The specifics couldn’t be more different. And yet, in some fundamental and peculiar ways, the strategies are similar.
Jacquet chooses a slightly unusual means of getting her ideas across, writing in the style of a helpful guide for corporations faced with scientific evidence that could “pose a risk to business operations”. Readers might assume the odd business may have used some of these dubious methods to push back against unwelcome research every so often, but they probably wouldn’t think it was a systemic issue. It doesn’t take long, however, to realize that Jacquet has a point – that the use of these tactics really does amount to a playbook to which almost every sector has had recourse at some point. The sheer weight of evidence that she piles up, chapter by chapter, is unarguable.
Corporations need to build up an arsenal of individuals, institutions and communications networks to put 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 the larger whole,” she suggests. Examples include the $450m provided by cigarette manufacturers to the Council for Tobacco Research, which led to more than 7,000 sympathetic scientific papers; or a network of teachers and thinktanks created by the agro-chemical industry to defend the herbicide glyphosate.
Of course, companies can make use of public relations firms – the obvious move. But why not also set up a trade association? They “can do work on behalf of an entire industry so that no single brand appears to be responsible”, Jacquet writes, pointing out that their names can even suggest a more formal organization: the National Fisheries Institute in the US, for example, sounds to some like a government body. (Later in the book she also lists some of the trade associations that have changed their names: CropLife America, which represents manufacturers of pesticides, was previously the American Crop Protection Association and before that the National Agricultural Chemicals Association.)
Why not nurture a consumer advocacy group? Jacquet asserts that in the 1990s Monsanto hired PR 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 last group is so gold-plated they get a whole chapter to themselves, which draws the deflating conclusion that “university professors are almost never forced to resign over issues of nondisclosure”.
The satirical concept can become grating. And despite the book’s subtitle, given the deadpan way in which it is written some might be confused about authorial intention. There is no introduction, but Jacquet does include some analysis in a “letter to her publisher” that appears as an appendix: “Each maneuver has some sleight of hand,” she writes, “but the end result of this strategy is not merely a card trick … [it] is more like the casino, with its calculated architecture and design … to keep the people inside comfortable and gambling as long as possible.”
In his thought-provoking 2012 history of power, Merchant, Soldier, Sage, the historian David Priestland argues that the struggles between these three power networks (or “castes” as he prefers to call them) are the main locomotives of history, with the merchants dominant for 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 that a Renaissance prince might use to get ahead, and Putin’s playbook lays out the modern warrior’s grisly possibilities, Jacquet lists the very different weapons that merchants unleash to hold on to their own power. Most of us will never need to use any of these tools, but there is a reason that Machiavelli’s book is a classic: as humble citizens we may have our suspicions about the battle being waged, but it’s rare that the protagonists are completely honest about what they’re doing. Jacquet has provided a useful if depressing glimpse inside the arsenal on hand for use by the corporate world.