Selling products, manipulating public opinion and influencing public policy: What the speaker at the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce annual event had to say
On Tuesday, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce held it’s annual meeting featuring Dr. Jonah Berger, Author of the books Contagious: Why Things Catch On and Invisible Influence.
People reading this blog might find it strange for GRIID to be at the Gand Rapids Chamber annual event. The fact is that part of the work we hope to accomplish through GRIID is to present information and analysis of those with power, specifically in West Michigan.
It is problematic for those who identify as being in favor fighting against systems of oppression, to ignore those who perpetuate and benefit from the same systems of oppression.
The Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce is one of those entities that perpetuate and benefit from systems of oppression, particularly neoliberal capitalism. Rick Baker, the President and CEO of the local chamber, is also one of the main organizers with the West Michigan Policy Forum, which is a major lobbying group representing the elite private sector.
In addition, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce does its own lobbying in West Michigan and at the state level. According to their 2016 annual report, 93% of Chamber endorsed candidates won in the 2016 General Election, which included candidates running political office at the city and county level. Lastly, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce spends tens of thousands of dollars on an annual basis to influence public policy at the state level.
As mentioned, the keynote speaker for this years annual meeting was Dr. Jonah Berger. Berger teaches marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. The basic message of his presentation to members of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce was this – How we are influenced and how we can use those same techniques to our advantage.
Berger was funny, spoke well and in a way that was engaging. he told jokes and presented his information with slides and video. The author talked about embracing the ways in which we are influenced by others, products and public opinion and then figuring out how we can use that “to our advantage.”
Berger talked about how it is important for us to be chameleons and to imitate or mimic what other do that is effective in terms of how well it influences others. Most of what he presented had to do with how our behavior is influenced, but also how products and brands are are influential.
One example from history that Berger gave was how the auto industry influenced people to want to buy cars. He cited the work of Uriah Smith, who assisted the auto industry with finding ways to help people get over their mistrust of buying cars. Smith came up with the idea for the horsey horseless, which was a car with a fake horse attached to the front (pictured here).
While we recognize that Uriah Smith’s horsey horseless may have played a role in normalizing the use of cars as transportation in the US, the larger reason why the public eventually succumbed to depending on cars was due to the fact that General Motors bought up the street cars across the country, forcing people to either ride the bus (which were inefficient) or buy cars. This topic is investigated in the powerful documentary, Taken for a Ride, which you can watch here.
What the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce keynote speaker did not talk about was his own role as a consultant for Fortune 500 companies to assist them in being more effective in influencing consumers.
• Why products and services catch on
• Understanding customer behavior
• Marketing and advertising in the digital age
• Making ideas spread
• How to be more influential
Berger also lists some of the companies has consults for, companies that have a track record of engaging in censorship, collaborating with state surveillance, profiting from the military industrial complex and human rights violations.
The speaker encouraged those in attendance to use his workbook with the staff that those in the audience were in charge of.
Essentially, the primary reason for bringing Berger to speak at the Chamber’s annual meeting was not just to share some quaint ideas about how to influence people, rather the speaker’s role was to get those in attendance to think about how to more effectively sell their products, manipulate public opinion and influence public policy. This is exactly why GRIID was there to report on what it is that the organizations and individuals with power in this community are up to so we can be better prepared to counter whatever it is they have in mind to do.
On Monday, we posted a critique of an MLive story focusing on the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation. The story on Monday from MLive created the narrative that the couple’s election/candidate contributions is “purse change” compared to their Charitable contributions.
We argued that the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation’s contributions were also primarily motivated by a political agenda, considering who the recipients on those dollars are. The MLive reporter also claimed that the couple had “lifted the veil” on the foundation’s spending, even though the information they release was minimal and did not reveal much.
Earlier today, MLive ran another article focusing on Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation contributions, specifically on one recipient of the foundation’s funding, Potter’s House. The headline reads for the MLive article reads, Betsy DeVos’ support of urban school goes beyond writing checks.
First, the headline is a bit misleading. Potter’s House presents itself as not only an urban school, but a Christ-centered school. More specifically, the mission statement reads:
The Potter’s House provides a Christ-centered education to children of all ethnic heritages and income levels, equipping them to serve God and society to their fullest potential.
There is a big difference in calling yourself an urban school, as opposed to a Christ-centered school. Plus, one of the main objections from educators across the country to Betsy DeVos being chosen as Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education, is that she and the DeVos family are primarily interested in promoting religious education, along with blurring the lines between church an state with DeVos funded programs like Believe to Become in the Grand Rapids Public Schools. A source who worked closely on that campaign told me recently that the DeVos family was the primary funder of the Believe to Become project, which was connected to the Grand Rapids Public Schools.
Secondly, the only sources in the article are the Dick & Betsy DeVos and the superintendent of Potter’s House School, John Booy. There are no critical voices in the article and nowhere does the reporter contest or really verify the claims made by those interviewed.
At one point superintendent Booy makes the statement, “They do their research on an organization and when they fund, it’s with no strings attached.”
Third, of course there are strings attached, even if they are not overt and in writing. As we stated in Monday’s critique in Part I those who are recipients of the foundation’s money would never dream of saying anything critical of their politics, even if it had nothing to do with the work of the organization receiving funds from the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation. Money, particularly in the amount the the Dicl & Betsy DeVos Foundation gives to Potter’s, always buys silence and complicity.
One other interesting point from the MLive article was this revelation:
For years, Dick DeVos took seniors on an annual insider’s tour of Grand Rapids, explaining the role planning and philanthropy played in revitalizing the city’s downtown.
Who wouldn’t love to sit in on that tour. I can imagine that there would be a great deal to talk about from Dick’s perspective. especially as it relates to the Grand Action projects he has been involved in with the rest of the GR elite, like the arena, the convention center, the civic theater and the downtown market. He also would no doubt talk about the number of hotels he and the rest of his family own downtown, along with all the other kinds of developments that they have a stake in.
However, it is not likely that these students would learn how much public money was funneled into such projects, either outright funding or tax breaks provided, equaling millions of dollars in the downtown alone.
So, once again, MLive has demonstrated that they don’t ask hard questions of those in power, don’t verify claims that are made and don’t offer critical perspectives. They truly are stenographers to power.
Hunger is a major problem around the world and it is no less of an issue in West Michigan. Tens of thousands of people receive some form of food assistance in the Greater Grand Rapids area and the number of people living in poverty is embarrassingly high.
In fact, according to a report released earlier this summer by the Economic Policy Institute, Grand Rapids has the largest wealth gap in Michigan. In addition, child poverty has grown in Michigan, according to a 2016 Kids Count report. The report states that:
Child poverty is even higher among minority groups: Forty seven percent of Michigan’s African-American children and 32 of Hispanic children live in poverty.
So how are organizations responding to this issue of poverty and hunger in West Michigan? There are a variety of responses, but most organizations fall under the category of engaging in social services or charity.
One example of the charity model is Feeding America West Michigan. Their website and Facebook page are filled with images and messages about ending hunger, fighting hunger, solving hunger and slashing hunger.
According to the 990 records for the organization, their budget keeps going up and the amount of food they are distributing has increased on an annual basis for more than a decade. When I interviewed the Executive Director of Feeding America West Michigan in 2013, he got excited about how much more food the organization was giving away. I was puzzled by his response in many ways. However, he then went on to tell me that the new freezer they installed was paid for by Wal-Mart. When I asked him if donations from retail giants came with any strings attached he avoided the question. When I asked him if receiving support from Wal-Mart prevented them from having a critical analysis of the retail giant or making statements to challenge the poverty-level wages they pay, he again remained silent.
False Solutions to Ending Hunger
The exchange I had with the Executive Director from Feeding America West Michigan demonstrates is why a charity based model that addresses hunger will never succeed. The charity-based model that claims to fight hunger is too connected to the very food system that is rooted in profit making, which makes it impossible in this model to actually fight hunger. The food charity model is essentially a false solution to ending hunger and what follows are some of the reasons why it is a false solution.
First, it is important to look at who sits on the Board at Feeding America West Michigan. The president of the board is a representative from Amway, which has no commitment to economic justice. Other organizations represented are Francis Marketing, Inc., Spectrum Health Medical Group, Star Truck Rentals, Inc., the law firm of Warner, Norcross & Judd, Chase Bank, Meijer, Calder Investment Advisors, Inclusive Performance Strategies, Sysco Food Services of Grand Rapids and a few representatives from the non-profit sector. The board of Feeding America West Michigan is essentially a corporate board, which like many non-profits, makes it difficult from them to think outside of operating within a Neoliberal Capitalist model.
A second reason why Feeding American West Michigan embraces a false solution has to do with where they get most of their food from. According to the organization’s website, they list the Top Food Donors in 2015, which is made up of the businesses that see food as a commodity for profit, as opposed to food as a fundamental human right.
A third reason why the food charity model is a false solution is that it doesn’t address the root cause of hunger, which is poverty and the existing economic system we live in. It should come as no surprise that those who make minimum wage or near minimum wage are the very same people who rely on some form of food assistance for food charity. If businesses like Wal-Mart were really interested in food justice, their employees would be paid a living wage, so that they could afford to eat healthy, whole foods. However, Wal-Mart is simply just one manifestation of the pathological economic system we live in, which creates the poverty and thus creates hunger.
Too often food charity agencies want to focus on the individuals and the families who are “in need” instead of looking at the food system which is the real culprit in creating hunger. But entities like Feeding America are unable or unwilling to see the problem through this lens, since organizing under a food justice model would be a radically different approach to how we truly end hunger.
A fourth and final reason that food charity is a false solution has to do with who is making the decision(s) on how to “fight hunger.” Those who are disproportionately involved in organizations like Feeding America West Michigan are well-meaning, economically comfortable, white liberals who want to “help people.” Food Charity is often another manifestation of the White Savior politics, where people want to do good, but fail to look at their own privilege and how their comfort and wealth contributes to other people’s poverty.
It is the problem of a great deal of how we respond to social issues in the culture, which is to have those who hold lots of privilege make the decisions about how to address the problem, which more often than not just ends up perpetuating the problem.
What needs to happen is what most food justice organizations around the globe do, which is to practice food sovereignty. Food sovereignty is essentially means that each community should be able to determine the kind of food system they want, which under food sovereignty would mean that it would be local, just, ecologically sustainable and based on food sharing. (See an article we wrote earlier this year that begins to look at what food justice/food sovereignty might look like.)
I know there is an impulse for us to say that at least Feeding America West Michigan is making sure that people are getting food and not going without. This is an understandable tendency, but one that also relies on false solutions. It will be necessary to have safety nets for people who are experiencing hunger and poverty in the interim while we develop and practice more food sovereignty, but only if those same organizations that are acting as a safety net are also committed to changing the food and economic system which currently is designed to keep a certain amount of people hungry and malnourished.
It is hard to go a week in Grand Rapids without one of the news sources celebrating the latest development project around town. The news media are rushing to praise whatever new project that is being proposed, so long as it means more growth.
One recent example is a posting on the site GRNOW.COM, which ran a headline on December 27 that read, The Most Anticipated Projects of 2017.
The piece in GRNOW is not so much a news piece as it is a listing of the development projects expected to come to fruition in 2017. Besides the cheerleading narrative for each project, the article does begin by saying:
After years of planning, Grand Rapids city leaders and developers are gearing up for a big year in Grand Rapids, probably the biggest boom in the city in 10 years; maybe ever. Here are some of the projects that we’ve been keeping an eye on, and what we might expect to see this year.
The list of development/gentrification projects cited in the GRNOW article is fairly long and each of the projects comes with a shiny picture, usually a rendering of what each of the completed projects will look like. We have included our own images that paint a different picture of what these projects really mean. Our images make the case that these projects:
- mostly private projects, use public money,
- make available market rate housing 98% of the time,
- displace working class families,
- promote institutionalized racism
- cater to the professional class and
- promote tourism
- while thousands struggle with poverty
Here is the list of expected 2017 development/gentrification projects:
- the downtown Celebration Cinema, that will include parking, a hotel and market rate housing.
- the Rockford Construction Bridge/Stocking project, which will include a Meijer store and mostly market rate housing, along with the new WMCAT headquarters.
- the new MSU Research facility on Michigan street.
- the new GVSU Health Science facility in the Belknap neighborhood, where numerous houses were torn down last year.
- the Switch Communications facility in the old Steelcase Pyramid.
- Warner Tower on Ionia and Ottawa.
- the new hotel on Fulton and Ionia.
- the new BOB Concert venue.
- the new Embassy Suites/Hilton Garden Hotel on Monroe.
- the new Hotel at 50 Monroe.
- Lyon Square and Riverfront makeovers.
- the 601 Seward/Lake Michigan Dr. apartments
- Diamond Place
- Renovation of the Kingsley Building
- Market rate housing between Benson and Grand off of Michigan
- New Wealthy Street market rate housing
- Founders Brewery expansion.
- and at least 11 more breweries expected to be open in 2017 – because we can never have too many places to drink alcohol.
“That would keep most Grand Rapidians satisfied for a while, but we hear there may be other news to bring you this year, including another new hotel and conference center downtown, exciting changes coming to Calder Plaza, and big changes coming to Woodland Mall.”
The Stop Funding DAPL event was organized to confront the financial institutions that are currently funding the Dakota Access Pipeline Project, which includes 17 different banks. The action today was directed at JPMorgan Chase bank, which has a branch at 200 Ottawa NW in downtown Grand Rapids.
The action began with drumming and a song that was led by members of the Anishinaabe community. Jonathan Rinehart then spoke about the significance of December 29, which is the anniversary of the US Calvary massacre of unarmed members of the Lakota nation at Wounded Knee in 1890. Reinhart then made the connection to contemporary genocidal policies against First Nations people, like what is happening at Standing Rock.
Nancy Gallardo, who has been at Standing Rock for several months and just returned this morning also spoke about what was happening there and the importance of these kinds of actions that demonstrate solidarity with the struggle in North Dakota.
Another Anishinaabe woman who has also been to Standing Rock spoke and talked about the importance of water in our lives and why it is vital to fight against oil extraction no matter where it takes place.
The flyer pictured above was shared during the action, encouraging people to contact the CEO of JPMorgan Chase Bank.
The intent was to go into the JPMorgan Chase bank on Ottawa, but when we began the action there were already cops there and a private security guard from the bank standing outside the doors. People walked over the the bank anyway but were denied entrance based on what the cop told us was that the bank is “private property.”
By this time there were 8 GRPD cars on the scene and one bicycle cop to protect the bank.
Denied entrance to the bank, people rallied in front of the the bank handing out flyers, chanting and listening to additional comments from the Anishinaabe community.
We founded out the the bank closed to make sure that those who were “protesting” couldn’t get inside, so people stayed for almost another hour to continue to shut the bank down and not allow them to be in the business of funding the pipeline, which is funding death.