Assessing the Health Implications of the Supreme Court Decision on Corporate Campaign Contributions

The Supreme Court’s ruling in January extends the right of political speech to corporations, providing companies with a significant new advantage in their efforts to sway public opinion. In this commentary, media scholar Jessie Daniels analyzes the public health implications of “cloaked websites,” which she predicts will become an increasingly powerful tool for corporations as a result of the Court’s decision.

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission struck down laws that banned corporations from using their own money to support or oppose candidates for public office. In overturning previously established precedents, the Supreme Court’s decision means that the government may not ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections.


Perhaps the most stunning portion of the ruling is the high court’s expansion of the Constitution’s First Amendment right to protection of political speech to include corporations, further extending to corporate entities the rights of individual persons. The Court had previously offered some First Amendment protection to commercial speech (Virginia State Board of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, 1976). However, the new ruling extends this protection to corporate political speech, providing corporations with a new and significant advantage in their efforts to sway public opinion through the use of media. The court’s decision also has serious implications for the ways corporations influence health, and it may not be only in the ways that CHW readers might expect.

The Citizens United case is fundamentally about corporate propaganda and, in the wake of this decision, we should be braced to see lots more corporate propaganda. The case began when a right-wing conservative “non-profit corporation,” Citizens United, made a 90-minute documentary-style film, called “Hillary: The Movie,” that was extremely critical of Hillary Rodham Clinton. The film coincided with Clinton’s run for president in 2008 and Citizens United wanted to air ads for the anti-Clinton film and distribute it through video-on-demand services on local cable systems during the 2008 Democratic primary campaign. However, federal courts said that the film “looked and sounded like a long campaign ad,” and therefore should be regulated like one. Citizens United advertised “Hillary: The Movie” on the Internet, sold it on DVD, and screened it in a few theaters. Campaign regulations do not apply to DVDs, theaters, or the Internet. The Court first heard arguments in March, then asked for another round of arguments about whether corporations should be treated differently from individuals when it comes to campaign spending. Ultimately, the Court decided that corporations – whether for-profit or not-for-profit – had a right to exercise “free speech” under the First Amendment.

This decision, as lots of folks have pointed out already, is disastrous in a number of ways. For example, Lainie Rutkow and her colleagues at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health observed in a recent commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine:

“The Court has effectively opened the floodgates to give corporations unprecedented influence over the election of people who determine health policy.”

What I want to call attention to here is effort by for-profit corporations to use their influence in the sphere of public opinion, “values,” and health.

It’s not new that corporations want to influence campaigns, elections, and legislation. For example, this excellent visual display of data at the Good Guide shows which companies have donated to which political parties.

More recently, soda companies like Coke and Pepsi have spent millions to defeat legislative proposals to tax sugar-sweetened beverages, a measure many public health researchers believe could reduce rising rates of obesity. In New York State, for example, the beverage industry has so far spent $3 million to defeat the state soda tax. This legislation is still pending in Albany, but odds are likely that the beverage industry will win out over public health advocates.

What’s new is the Supreme Court’s extension of “free speech” rights to corporations, which may expand corporate attempts to influence not only political campaigns and legislation, but also the wider spectrum of “values.” And, taking the Citizens United case as archetypal, corporations will increasingly be using multimedia in these efforts. We already see this in play in a number of campaigns currently active.

You’ve probably seen the billboards with admirable people’s faces on them and touting some value associated with them. Liz Murray, for instance, who famously went from “homeless to Harvard” is featured on a billboard with this tagline, and then the value associated with it: “Ambition.” Beneath that, the text reads, “Pass it On.” The billboards are sponsored by something called “The Foundation for a Better Life,” which is in fact, a private foundation owned by Philip F. Anschutz. Anschutz is the billionaire co-founder of Qwest Communications, among the largest land-owners in Colorado, a major player in the oil, railroad, and media markets, and according to Forbes, he is the 33rd wealthiest man in America. He also has major investments in sports teams (such as several soccer teams, the LA Lakers, and the LA Kings), stadiums, and newspapers (San Francisco Examiner and the SF Independent). Anschutz is also an active funder of the Republican party, and has donated huge sums to James Dobson’s archly conservative group, “Focus on the Family.” But, you wouldn’t know that Anschutz was sponsoring these ads unless you looked hard for that information because it’s intentionally disguised. “The Foundation for a Better Life” wants to influence people’s values without disclosing their political affiliations or goals.

In many ways, this campaign is similar to the phenomenon I’ve identified as “cloaked websites.” Cloaked websites are published by individuals or groups who conceal authorship in order to deliberately disguise a hidden political agenda. In this way, these sites are similar to previous versions of print media propaganda, such as “black,” “white” and “grey” propaganda. Cloaked sites can include a variety of political agendas. For instance, some cloaked sites, such as http://www.whitehouse.org or http://www.youthforvolpe.ca, are intended as political satire.

Cloaked websites can have very real consequences for health as they can be cloaked to conceal a hidden political agenda connected to reproductive politics, such as http://www.teenbreaks.com, which appears to be a reproductive health website. In fact, the website is a disguise for pro-life propaganda, much like brick-and-mortar “Women’s Health Clinics” which conceal the fact that staff are pro-life counselors who intend to prevent women from choosing abortions. (For more information on cloaked websites, see this recent peer-reviewed article: “Cloaked websites: propaganda, cyber-racism and epistemology in the digital era,” New Media & Society 2009 11: 659-683).

While some news analysts have remarked that the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is going to result in senators with branded logos on their lapels – or foreheads – I think this is doubtful. Instead, I think that what we’re going to see is an increase in the more subtle and sophisticated corporate branding and, along with this, many more efforts to influence “values” around issues that relate to health.

One such example is a campaign known as “The Responsibility Project” sponsored by Liberty Mutual, a global insurance conglomerate. Unlike the Anschutz-funded billboards, which hide their sponsorship, The Responsibility Project is widely advertised as supported by Liberty Mutual. Launched in January 2008, the Liberty Mutual “Responsibility Project” campaign is heavily advertised on radio and in print, a strategy intended to drive traffic to the website, which includes films from television stars talking about “responsibility,” and a blog that addresses and frames a series of controversial issues and elicits comments from users. The “About” page at their website explains at least part of their intention:

Why Responsibility?

What Does It Mean? Why Is It Important?

As an insurance company, we like responsible people. Because people who believe in doing the right thing don’t just make better people, they make better customers. But the idea of responsibility can be difficult to define. What does it mean? Why is it important? These aren’t questions that can be easily addressed or agreed upon. There are a lot of differing opinions and beliefs involved. And while we may never uncover any definitive answers, we believe the questions are still worth asking.

How It Began

In 2006, Liberty Mutual created a TV commercial about people doing things for strangers. The response was overwhelming. We received thousands of positive emails and letters from people all over the country commenting on the ads. We thought, if one TV spot can get people thinking and talking about responsibility, imagine what could happen if we went a step further? So we created a series of short films, and this website, as an exploration of what it means to do the right thing.

Of course, it makes sense that “As an insurance company, we like responsible people,” if the definition of “responsible people” is meant to include those that don’t file insurance claims. The more “responsible people” who pay their insurance premiums but never file claims, the more profitable Liberty Mutual is. So, they have a vested economic interest in defining the terms of “responsibility” in a variety of areas, but chief among these areas is health. Liberty Mutual takes on a variety of health and health policy issues on their blog, including fast foodchildhood obesitysmoking, reproductive rights (here and here), and incarceration.

When the discussion is staged by Liberty Mutual, these issues are framed exclusively within the language of “personal responsibility.” This is a sophisticated rhetorical strategy that makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to reframe the discussion in ways that emphasize corporate responsibility.

So, for example, the post about fast food, titled “Fast Food Limits: Food for Thought or Food Police?” begins this way:

Should government be responsible for deciding what kinds of food you can–and cannot–eat?

Here, Liberty Mutual wants us to think about our personal responsibility as a better alternative than “the government” telling us what we can and cannot eat. What Liberty Mutual doesn’t want us to think about is the way that the four or five agricultural companies which dominate the food industry offer us the appearance of “choice” which in actuality is corn disguised as different forms of fast food.

Similarly, the post about childhood obesity, “Obese Kids: Criminal Neglect by Parents?” asks, “…are you also responsible for what your children eat?” The post then quotes an unnamed “director of a university weight-management center,” who points to a variety of factors, including socioeconomic status, and environmental factors including access to parks and playgrounds, as contributing factors to childhood obesity. Yet, none of these factors are discussed further in the post (or elsewhere on Liberty Mutual’s website). Instead, readers are prompted to:

“Tell us what you think: Should parents be criminally responsible for their obese children? How far should the law go in holding parents directly responsible for any of their children’s behaviors?”

Not surprisingly, a majority of the 56 comments that follow support the idea that parents “should be held criminally responsible” for their children’s weight. Once the terms of the debate have been set with “personal responsibility” as one option, it’s hard to disagree. There’s a lot that’s missing from this discussion, however, such as any discussion of structural inequality that might contribute to childhood obesity, that is, the ways that some kids have access to parks and playgrounds and healthy produce while others do not or the role of the food industry in relentlessly promoting unhealthy products.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case has opened the legal door for corporate propaganda to be given full “free speech” protection under the First Amendment. Not-for-profit corporations, like Citizens United, or foundations like Anschutz’s “Foundation for a Better Life,” or for-profit corporations like Liberty Mutual, now have a constitutionally protected right to engage in political speech. Corporations will not only use their considerable economic power to back particular candidates and shape elections, they will also increasingly use their influence in the sphere of public opinion, “values,” and health.

If you’d like to know more about which corporations are trying to influence your values, you might start with Good Guide andSource Watch.

If you’d like to get more involved in stopping corporate domination, you can start here or here.

By Jessie Daniels, Associate Professor in the Urban Public Health Program at Hunter College and author of Cyber Racism. You can read more of Jessie’s work at Racism Review or on Twitter.

Photo Credits:

  1. wallyg
  2. quite peculiar