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Grassroots for Rent

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Planting and tending Astroturf campaigns is estimated to be a $1 billion a year industry. Astroturf experts like Bonner & Associates, whose clients include Dow Chemical and Monsanto as well as a host of other chemical, tobacco and automobile interests, are quite effective at creating the image of public support for all sorts of different issues. These professional "grassroots" gurus have elaborate offices with high tech systems that can generate thousands of letters, phone calls and faxes to a targeted politician within hours of an alert from a client in distress.

For example, Bonner & Associates' Washington, D.C., office has over 300 phone lines which are constantly staffed as well as an elaborate computer system which can send out fax and email alerts to thousands of chemical industry employees around the country who are then instantly 'empowered' to contact their legislators. These firms have technology like patch-through calling, where a Bonner employee calls a volunteer, gets them to agree to repeat a message to their representative, and is immediately patched through to that legislator's office. Bonner's staff of Astroturf specialists make thousands of calls a day searching for citizens around the country who will support the industry agenda when called on.

What's wrong here? One obvious thing that separates Astroturf from legitimate grassroots is that the people on the phones organizing the "grassroots" are almost always based in Washington, and have no connection to the local community that they are trying to activate.

This disconnect between the organizer and the concerned citizen works, in many ways, to the advantage of the industry. With the advanced technology of the professional Astroturf firms, a client can generate the appearance of broad public support in any targeted congressional district without ever putting someone on the ground at those locations, saving valuable time and resources.

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last updated: march.27.2009

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