John - so the game is rigged. Absolutely the game is rigged, and it’s that supreme court decision that rigged it.
Robert - What’s the difference between an advertising agency and a lobbying firm? Washington DC
Matt - I'm Matt O'Leary, and you're listening to the Influence Hacker Podcast. This podcast is an unlikely collaboration between John Lenker and Kevin deLaplante—two marketing experts, and myself—a high school counselor with almost no pre-existing knowledge of the marketing field.
Our purpose is to empower everyday consumers, such as myself, to be more critically-minded and discerning, while educating marketers to be more ethical and effective as they strive to influence consumers.
We affectionately call this process "Influence Hacking."
In this episode, we’ll gain revealing insight from a thought leader in the food industry into the nature of the hack. More specifically, we’ll dive into three interrelated questions that make up three acts of this episode, if you will: 1) Why do big companies lie? 2) What’s the difference between marketing and propaganda?, and 3) Who is the keeper of the truth?
We were honored to interview pediatric endocrinologist, professor emeritus at the University of California San Francisco, and author of over 200 scientific articles & reviews, Robert Lustig.
Dr. Lustig is a whistleblower, a canary in a coal mine, who bemoans the 80% of grocery store items with added sugar. He believes that diabetes, heart disease, strokes, & other metabolic diseases are driven by just that, excess sugar, which overloads the liver, forcing the pancreas to release insulin which in turn stores that incoming sugar as fat. And yes.. even with artificial sweeteners, which trick the body to set off this same process. Sorry Diet Coke.
Dr. Lustig is featured quite prominently in the Amazon Prime documentary, Fed Up, which makes a compelling case against Big Sugar. Ya know in these type of films, he’s one of those guys in a suit they cut to to give their claims some authority... mahogany bookshelves, the whole bit.
So why do big companies lie? In our first episode, John suggested that a public lie starts with a personal lie. That is, we first lie to ourselves... That’s kind of a philosophical or psychological angle, something I’d imagine could be gleaned from a great novelist - Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. Dr. Robert Lustig, however, speaks to something less abstract and more grounded in the here and now, laying the legal foundation, or lack thereof, on which deception in corporate America thrives.
In our interview, Kevin cut right to the chase.
Kevin - Well Robert, you took time off from your career, life, to go back and study law, right? You got a master’s, right? I read that as trying to equip yourself to enter into and become influential within the policy realm.
Robert - It’s a Master’s in Studies in Law, an MSL. Basically, I went to law school to learn two things. The first thing was, when does a personal health issue become a public health crisis, and what are the legal doctrines that either support or detract from that? Ya know, tobacco, alcohol, ultimately the sugar issue, which is the one that sort of rung me, and now the technology issue, these are the questions. Where does libertarianism end and communitarianism start? The second reason why I went to law school was to figure out how tobacco got away with it for 40 years, because ultimately, this is the tobacco playbook all over again. We should be able to use the same arguments and legal doctrines that stymied tobacco in 1994 for both sugar and technology. So, understanding the playbook was absolutely essential. So, those are the two reasons I went to law school, but it was not to be a lawyer.
Matt - Clearly, Lustig holds the tobacco and sugar industries in equally dismal regard. A dose dependent liver toxin.. that’s his description. Poison. In his ideal future, a Snickers ad on the bus stop bench might be reduced to mere antique, lying dusty by a poster of the Marlboro Man in grandma’s attic.
It’s safe to assume also, and I’m sure you’d get this from a cursory youtube spree of Lustig’s talks, that sugar has crossed the threshold he talks about here, from personal liability to public health crisis - that we can apply lessons learned from Big Tobacco to our current dilemma with Big Sugar.
Lustig’s legal expertise in this arena really seems to inform his policy interests.
Robert - The question is, is it okay to convey disinformation to get you to buy something? Ultimately, in your vernacular, that would be the crook. I think you should outlaw all crooks, and I think that propaganda needs to be vetted and curated to be determined whether or not it is in fact disinformation. Problem is, the Supreme Court has told us that commercial speech is free speech, and basically, corporation, companies, people, are allowed to say anything they want, because corporations are people. That’s, I think, the problem. That’s where we ran off the rails.
John gets Robert to expand on that idea.
John - That’s actually a really good point, the audience may not not know a lot about that, about the status of a corporation as legally being like a person in our country.
Robert - Well now, people who work for corporations have double protection. They have the protection of being an employee of a corporation, and of being a citizen, all at the same time. So, as an example, 2008, the recession, the disaster.. sub-prime crisis. Who went to jail? [John - almost no one] One person went to jail, an Egyptian national who worked for credit suites, a very lower level functionary. None of the people for AIG, none of the people from Lehman, nobody from Countrywide, and none of the people who basically manufactured the crisis went to jail. And the reason? They were employees of a corporation. [John - so the game is rigged] Absolutely the game is rigged, and it’s that supreme court decision that rigged it.
So, there are several that have led to this usurpation by corporate America over the consumer. It started with Buckley v Valeo in 1976, moved on the Virginia Pharmacy vs Virginia… I forgot the name of the government organization, it had to do with advertising pharmaceuticals on tv, also in 1976. Then, we had Central Hudson Electric vs Public Services Commission in 1980, and basically it all topped off with Citizens United in 2010. Basically, at this point in time, anyone who works for a corporation has double protection, no one’s ever going to jail. Therefore, there is absolutely no shaming and there’s no deterrent to basically use their bad offices for screwing people and creating their own wealth at the expense of others. When a company benefits while its consumers get hurt, that’s called a moral hazard. We have an immoral hazard, because it’s the same companies that are benefiting from it that actually made the rules. And actually, just this morning we found out the opioid companies did exactly this, and lobbied congress to create the Marino Act, which basically reigned in the DEA so that it couldn’t prosecute the opioid companies in order to be able to do this. So, this is brand new, I mean this is right in our face, right now. This is an American disaster, and only of our own making, and it’s why I went to law school, and what we can do about it. Right now, sadly, all of this is legal. It shouldn’t be, but it is.
Matt - There are of course a myriad of reasons why people lie, why businesses and marketers lie.. but for big companies with tremendous leverage over government agencies, insulated from prosecution for any negative effects of their products, one reason is clear - they lie because they can.
Robert - What is the difference between marketing and propaganda? And I’d love your take on it but I’ve argued this in my book and in conferences and online, etc. Here’s the difference: Marketing is using information to espouse your point of view. Propaganda is using disinformation to espouse your point of view. The difference is the truth. When companies and politicians and virtually anybody tells the truth about what they’re trying to sell you, whether it be a product or a behavior, they’re marketing. When they tell you a lie, a falsehood, certainly a knowing one, that’s propaganda. That’s the difference.
Kevin - The problem I see with that definition is that there’s lots of examples of what people would want to call propaganda campaigns that don’t necessarily have to require the appeal to false information.
Robert - Then the question is are they propaganda or are they just persuasive marketing?
Kevin - Well, the language, the term propaganda originates back in the 1620’s. The Catholic Church set up an office, The Sacred Congregation for Propagating the Faith of the Roman Catholic Church. The propaganda vitae was this latin term, and the word just means to sow, like you’re spreading seeds around. So, you’re spreading the message, you’re disseminating or promoting a particular set of ideas. That seems to be the neutral sense of propaganda. But of course in that context it was set up as propagating the catholic faith against the protestant [John - uprising] alternative, right… It then becomes associated with a particular type of partisan propaganda that loses its neutrality. And it gets associated with a pejorative sense that you’re doing something to undermine, something deceptive. But, when you think about campaigns to convince the public for example to enter a war. You had the WW1 campaign in the US and Britain where the governments decided we needed to go to war, and they brought out these, you could only call them propaganda campaigns [Robert - what about the Gulf War? You want to talk about propaganda?] No, but the distinction you’re drawing is based on disseminating false information, but the Nazi threat wasn’t necessarily a false threat. So, nevertheless, they had to have a systematic campaign of propaganda in order to shape public opinion to support this outcome. The case here is that it looks like you have, you could have a neutral definition of propaganda, and then within that, distinguish between cases where the propaganda is based on lies and deception, which is a particular kind of negative type of propaganda. The category itself, the people who study propaganda I think have a broader definition and they tend to view it neutrally. My sense of this is they’d distinguish propaganda from persuasion this way, they’d say, propaganda is a kind of attempt to influence but it’s intended to serve the interest of the propagandist, and not necessarily the target. [Robert - you might argue that marketing does the same] Well you could, but I think that’s exactly, this distinction between trying to serve the interests of a business or a company primarily, vs attempting to serve multiple interests, that of the company and the audience, that’s a useful distinction. And also, I think if a company is doing business just to serve their own interest, the corporate interest, that’s a kind of propaganda, whether they’re truthful or not.
Robert - When the stakeholders are aligned, that’s when capitalism is at its best, and that’s where marketing is valuable. Because you want to call attention to your product or your belief or ideology, that you think people should be coming on board because its good for them. Ultimately, it’s got to be their decision whether it’s good for them. When you supply misinformation so that they cannot make a rational choice whether it’s good for them, then that’s not marketing
John - So, let me jump in because I think there have been a lot of valuable things that have been said in this discussion, and I want to bring a case to light. Let’s say that I’m a father who has a child who is completely brainwashed out there in the culture eating all these bad things because that’s what they’ve been programmed to do by all this misinformation & propaganda coming from the food companies and all the political lobbying groups that have shaped policy over decades. I, as a parent am trying to market a change, I’m having an effective change that I’m seeking to change their attitudes, values, & beliefs around their eating. And they’re my child, and obviously I have their best interests at heart. We’ll give me the benefit of the doubt that I’m armed with the truth because I watched Robert Lustig speak on FU on Amazon Prime. I paid $4 to watch his video, and I have a lot of data and information to support myself, but I have a ten year old who hasn’t drunk the Kool Aid so to speak. So what I’m gonna do when he comes home from school I’m going to sit him down and talk to him about stuff, but then I’m gonna say, let’s watch this movie on Amazon Prime together. Kevin’s argument would be in that moment, I’m using a piece of propaganda, because the food companies would call what you’re doing propaganda. [Robert - Well, the question is…] Let me just finish the thought… I’m using a piece of propaganda with an agenda to change his thinking and instill in him some measure of fear about going along with the herd, and poisoning his body everyday with sugar.
Robert - Well, so the question is.. When you’re a parent, you’re making that conscious decision as to what content you’re exposing your child to, because presumably, they’re kids, they don’t know any better. Ya know, there are a lot of kids who actually know better than their parents. K, and there are a lot of parents who have been led astray, and led down the primrose path, and are now paying for it in terms of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, alzheimers, and every other disease, because they didn’t know the truth. So, the question is, who is the keeper of the truth?
[music, followed by Alice in Wonderland clip]
Humpty Dumpty - When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.
Alice - The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things.
Humpty Dumpty - The question is, which is to be master, that’s all.
Robert - Who is the keeper of the truth, and who do you really believe in this world? As it turns out, this is a complicated question. There is no truth. We thought the truth, for fifty years, was that saturated fat was bad and we got rid of it because of it. That was quote, “the truth.” We now know due to work that my colleagues at UCSF and others around the world have done, is that this was a massive propaganda campaign, a massive public relations campaign, but very specifically to exonerate sugar and the sugar association paid scientists off to create their truth. And the thing that I’ve learned is that there is no truth. There’s my truth, and there’s your truth. You could argue then, that if you don’t have my truth then you’re a propagandist, and ya know what that’s how it ultimately ends up being used.
It sounds like Lustig’s flirting with relativism here - that he’s making a metaphysical claim that there is no truth, there are no objective facts... but his next statement clarifies that this was more of an epistemological claim about what sources can be trusted to promulgate the truth. In the food industry, he’s saying that the traditional, official sources simply cannot be trusted, leaving only one source on which to rely.
My thing is science. I let the science tell me what’s true and what’s not. Data. I’m the data guy. I didn’t come to this with a preconceived agenda. I didn’t start out being a zealot against sugar. I consumed plenty of candy bars in my day. I am by no means squeaky clean. It’s only the science that brought me to where I am today. I just followed the data.
Matt - Data, science, that’s a noble pursuit. That’s what we’re after in the marketplace, right, empirical buttresses to support and lend credence to our claims about a product, service, or platform. And as consumers, of course we want the same thing - to use our rational faculties and avoid being persuaded by baseless emotional ploys. It gets a little tricky, though, in the politicized space that Lustig occupies, because if there is no public consensus on the truth about sugar, its health effects, and the sugar industry, then every source is partisan, to someone.
Robert - What I’m arguing is there’s a part of our brain that’s analytic, and basically does data sifting for us. It is called the prefrontal cortex. And when your prefrontal cortex is working, you can make conscious decisions about what the truth is. When your prefrontal cortex is not working, you’re basically a lizard. You’re running off complete intuition, and it is then that you become a zealot, because you believe in something with religious fervor than with scientific analysis. My argument is that we have become lizard over the last 50 years. And the reason is because we have had an onslaught against our prefrontal cortex through technology, through sleep deprivation, through sugar, through processed food. Bottom line, our society has created a dissociation between the part of our brain that makes us human, the part of our brain that makes us analytical, and the lizard part of our brain. And we are now responding in ways that are ultimately bad for us, that are hedonic.
Let me give you an example, this is actually something I mention in my book. Does unhappiness cause mortality? Do people who are unhappy die early, yes or no?
John - I would say that, based on what I know, people who tend to have to be striving toward a goal, end up living longer. So, if they’re dissatisfied, and they don’t feel like they’re happy, and they’re striving toward a goal so they can become happy, the longer they’re engaged in that process, the more likely they are to live longer. [Robert - good for you]
Kevin - That’s good. Although, I agree that the intuition here is to go the other way and say that the happier people will be more likely to live longer, for sure.
Robert - So, it turns out that the million women’s study in the UK asked this question directly, and it turns out that the degree of unhappiness is not correlated with mortality, longevity, or anything else for that matter. There are plenty of unhappy people in the world and they live just as long. The thing that determines whether unhappiness leads to mortality is not the unhappiness, it’s what you do to try to get happy. If you engage in hedonic behaviors or hedonic chemicals in an attempt to try and override your unhappiness by substituting pleasure, i.e. tobacco, alcohol, cocaine, heroine, etc, all in an attempt to escape your unhappiness, it is those hedonic behaviors, all of which have negative medical consequences, that leads to mortality. So it’s not the unhappiness itself, it’s what you do to get happy that kills you. So, the question is, WHO MADE YOU WANNA GET HAPPY?
Kevin - Right right, well this is the key to your particular thesis, is that the nature of the hack, is this systematic confusion and conflation between the concepts of pleasure and happiness [Robert - correct]. The hack is to tell people, in order to get happy, you pursue this thing which is in fact a dopamine based death spiral, and it’s really pleasure. And they sell the pleasure, and they stick the label on it, and that this will make you happy. And of course this targets the limbic system, and it’s an addictive process, which increases stress and cortisol and is tied into the other health effects, mental and physical health effects.
Robert - And it is that stress and those hedonic behaviors that take your prefrontal cortex offline.
John - So, we have a term for this lizard existence that you’re describing, and we call it poverty of consciousness. What’s happened, throughout the decades, is that the people engaged in marketing have gotten really smart, ya know, they’ve gotten very artful with their skills about how to manipulate people to do their will. The values system around using that art and that craft has all gone out the window, and according to you it’s been legislated right out of our laws… such that it’s just an open season on consumers. It’s open season to go out and use whatever your craft will allow you to do.
Matt - Lustig goes on to explain the difference between two different types of claims, and how they relate to your average marketing or advertising campaign.
Robert - So, a structure function claim, is like, Vitamin D leads to strong bones, or dietary fiber helps you go poop. Those are structure function claims. Health claims would be, Vitamin D treats osteoporosis, you have a disease state. Dietary fiber reverses metabolic syndrome, that’s a disease claim. So, a structure function claim doesn’t say my product actually does something positive. It’s just a throwaway that has nothing to do with the product itself, that just calls attention to the product, and it’s usually on the front of packaging. A health claim you actually have to have data for, you have to have codification through the FDA for. So, standard marketing is basically structure function. K. If you can actually amass the data to show you’re doing something positive, either for health, or for society, or climate change, or whatever problem you have devised your product for, then you should be able to get that level of proof into your marketing. You should be able to demonstrate why your marketing is truthful, and why you have addressed this issue, and why you should buy this product, because this is in fact good for you even more than it is good for us the company, and here’s why. And you should be able to do that with data, with science. If you can’t, then is it because of your product, is it because of your market, or something else?
Matt - I don’t think many people would argue that striving for proof through data isn’t something we should be engaging in, but the crucial word there is should, not must. When you introduce the forceful hand of government, that’s where the argument that we should outlaw all crooks faces fierce resistance. So, you have this tension between empathy for those who fall victim to structure function claims, to false claims, and more libertarian sensibilities that want to free up markets and deregulate industry. Because Robert Lustig frames this American Disaster, this assault on the prefrontal cortex, as a public health issue, he clearly sees political and top down action as completely appropriate and necessary. Everyone’s gonna prioritize these values of individual freedom and empathy for the exploited differently, and we owe it to listeners to present the opposite side of this coin at some point, but in trying to grasp Lustig’s position, his field of practice & expertise is of critical importance. He’s a pediatric endocrinologist, with particular interest in the destructive effects of propaganda on innocent children’s health. As someone steeped in the childhood obesity problem for a 30+ year career - it’s easier to understand why he would advocate for them by any means necessary.
Robert - Gatorade, 1965, patented by Dr. Robert Cabe University of Florida, reason it was called Gatorade. 1972, the Florida Gators beat the Auburn Tigers in the Sugar Bowl, which was at that time the national championship. [John - ironic] Gatorade made a big splash. Did you ever taste the original Stokely’s Gatorade [John - no, Kevin - not me] I did. It tasted like tiger piss. It was glucose, sodium, and water. It was an oral rehydration solution, the same thing we give cholera victims in India. And it worked. It did work, I’m not saying it didn’t, it just tasted terrible. Nobody bought it. The only people who would ever drink it were dehydrated athletes on the gridiron. 1992, Pepsi buys Gatorade, and says how are we gonna market this swill? What’d they do? Two things. Michael Jordan, high fructose corn syrup. Now they would argue that the high fructose corn syrup increases your liver glycogen, which is true. I don’t argue that. You will replete your glycogen faster with a sports drink than water. However, the question is, what is the downside? And the downside is fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome, all the things that I’ve been talking about. Does Pepsi talk about that? That’s propaganda.
John - How do I start a company that allows me to engage in transactional business, with a world that is there available to me as a market. How do I do it as the winner in our philosophy, the one who is out there doing what they believe is in the best interest, that the data supports is in the best interest? We call it persuasive education, the idea is that if the data’s on your side, and you’re promoting something that the data supports is in the best interest of a given population, that you don’t have to hide anything. It really is a matter of the more that they find out about what you’re offering, the more the lights are coming on, and it’s just simply that they’re educating themselves in a way that persuades them, and we understand there are some persuasive arts. You don’t want to use language that’s not helpful. You don’t want to use arguments that are irrelevant. Ya know, you wanna aim things to attract, inform, and invoke the people that you’re targeting. But you want to do it in a way that is honorable and virtuous and supported by data. What’s your advice, how do you… (John options 55:50; 45:30)
Robert - This is very difficult because most companies don’t want to engage in this.
Matt - Up to this point, Lustig had talked extensively about legal miscues and political frustrations.. and when the conversation revolves around structural critiques, it can be easy to feel helpless and hopeless, like the problem’s just slightly out of reach. John tried, three separate times, to ask the question you just heard, to draw out ways that individuals can be empowered as effective change agents in this morass. And finally, we made some headway.
Robert - This is a public health issue, and public health issues require public health responses. All public health responses have to have personal intervention and societal intervention. So, personal intervention, ya know, for drugs of abuse, we would call rehab. Societal intervention, for lack of a better word, we would call laws. Rehab and laws. You have to work at the personal level and the societal level. One or the other does not work, you have to do both. [Kevin - Absolutely, absolutely, this is at least a multi level approach to the problem requires bottom up and top down stuff at the same time] Has to be a multi level approach. For tobacco, we have rehab & laws, Cocaine? Rehab and laws. Heroine? Rehab and laws, although the Marino law was basically designed to undo those laws, but bottom line, you need both. There is no education alone that can solve any substance of abuse, that’s why it’s a substance of abuse. And there’s no education alone that will basically make you do the golden rule. You basically build that into society, that’s what the laws are, to make you want to perform the golden rule. Alright, that’s why they’re there is a reminder, the nudge, to keep you doing it. It’s why we have laws, so that you have conformity amongst the populus, in order to try to better the society instead of to take it apart, which is what we have now. So, that is what society is built on, and you need both. For sugar, we have neither, for technology, we have neither. This is what we need to start working on.
I’m an advisor to the Center for Humane Technology, this is the nonprofit that Tristan Harris, the former Design Ethicist at Google set up with Roger Macnamee to basically take on silicon valley. And ya know this whole issue of dehumanizing the human condition, which is basically your poverty of consciousness. So, there is a nonprofit that is addressing this directly. We are developing a coder’s code of ethics that needs to be taught right at the start, in high school in college, as people are coming up with these great ideas. [John - sort of like a coder’s Hippocratic Oath] Exactly. Something he suggested is an FDA for technology.
Kevin - What about some other simple heuristics like a marketer’s version of the golden rule. Market unto others as you would have them market unto you. Cus when you’re thinking of crafting your marketing campaign and your product development and so on, take on the role, you have to play the game, take on the role of the audience, the consumer, and ask yourself, how would I like to be marketed to?
That is a kind of model that we can aspire to, but it seems to be so rare, in the context of… well I guess the question I have is to what extent it’s a realistic model to be spread widely, or whether it will always be kind of like an artisanal model of business practice, where there are always these small groups who are engaged in a kind of ethical marketing, ethical business, but, it’s just never going to be the norm. Or whether or not that’s too cynical, what do you think?
Robert - Uh, I don’t know. I think you’re allowed to market. It’s not against the law. I think that people have been marketing ideas for millenia. Ya know, before they were marketing products. It’s part of the human ritual. The difference is nowadays we’re not marketing ideas or products, we’re marketing untruth. Ya know, we’re marketing lies. I think that’s the difference. I think that’s what George Orwell was telling us, and I think it’s here. I think that’s what changed. Somewhere along the way it became not just legal to do it, but normal to do it. We have normalized this very, what I would consider egregious behavior. It’s a breakdown in society, to some extent. And in the process, our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that discerns truth from lies, is under such assault that we can’t even tell the difference anymore.
If deception is really baked into the cake, no pun intended, then it seems we have a mighty task… In the counseling world, it’s almost a truism, but disrupting someone’s routine, someone’s stasis, is a monumental challenge, nonetheless with a system or industry’s stasis. Even with a high schooler who’s had only 14 or 15 years to develop them, habits aren’t broken without a disciplined, intentional, sustained effort. I maintain that recognizing and articulating the problem is the most critical step in denormalizing deception. But then there’s communicating and broadcasting new norms of ethical business and marketing to your community and the public.
John - We’re trying to advocate for nurturing and fostering a moral code of ethics within the marketing industry itself. That we look at each other, amongst ourselves, look each other in the eye, and we come out of this sleep that we’ve been in, where we disassociate what we do from our own sense of personal morality. Ya know, it’s just business, it’s just business, but we understand that it’s life, and that we have a responsibility, along with these two other groups, along with consumer advocacy and people advocating or lobbying for changes to our laws, that we advocate for changes among ourselves. And that we create a code of conduct, or not just that, but, to make it ya know unconscionable, that if you as a peer are doing something that is shameful, that we don’t just give you an award for having a clever ad about it. That we, that’s not cool, that’s not good. Don’t work for those companies that do those things, don’t support those things.
Matt - In our next episode, we interview Todd Crawford. As cofounder of both Commission Junction and Impact, Todd’s played a key role in bringing professionalism and accountability into the field of performance marketing. And as a result, he’s been the recipient of numerous honors and awards, and has earned a place of genuine respect in the industry. It’s a must listen.
For a little deeper dive into some of the concepts we talk about here you can read the first three companion journal articles now by following The Influence Hacker Journal on Medium, and can help us get this off the ground by sharing with friends and family.
The Influence Hacker Podcast is Executive Produced by John Lenker and Kevin deLaplante. Our mixing and mastering engineer is John Sloan. The producer of this podcast, as well as the writer of the narrative and original music, is yours truly, Matt O’Leary.