Dispelling fears: A History of a Successful Smear Campaign

By Chong Sheau Ching
July 24, 2018

What is a smear campaign?

Wiki defines smear campaigns as an effort to damage or call into question someone's reputation, by propounding negative propaganda. It can be applied to individuals or groups, or to a competitor’s product.  

A direct frontal assault about the competitors or the products, or public education about the negativities of a product or the competitor is commonly deployed.  A highly effective method in product smearing, especially on food items, is not to directly smear a product, but to instill ‘FUD’ (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) about the competitors’ products. 

By isolating one of the competing products and disseminating information relating to its negative effects, an information campaign draws attention to all other similar products from competitors.  The approach, applied by well-funded, established companies, is used to effectively target customers who are risk-avoiders.  A ‘FUD attack’ on a competitor’s product describes and highlights the flaws or limitations of the product in a very clear and concise way, often with a term or several key words to remind the customers about making the right choice to avoid the ‘bad thing.’ The ‘attack‘ appears to be educational, raising awareness among the public to protect them from the ‘bad’ product.  It is so subtle that potential buyers just refrain from buying the targeted product, often the competitor does not even know that the attack has been made against their product!

A case against Malaysian palm oil

Malaysia, as of 2018, produces 39% of the world’s palm oil.  It is a tropical country, so oil palm trees grow year round, producing 10,000 tonnes of fruits per hectare. Soybean plants in the US are harvested only once a year, thus soybean oil is more pricey on the world market.  As a result, the price of palm oil based cooking oil and food products has been lower than that for soybean oil in the global edible oil market.  Soybean oil couldn’t compete with palm oil and its sales were affected.

In order to counter the higher price of soybean oil,  in  1986, the American Soybean Association engaged the US  Center for Science and Public Interest to file a petition with the USFDA to label palm oil as a nutritional product with saturated fat.  Then a PR firm was engaged to ‘educate’ consumers with a smear campaign against palm oil, labeling it as ‘unhealthy tropical oil.’  The ‘education’ campaign was so successful that American and European consumers have, for several decades, believed that palm oil is unhealthy.  Malaysia, which was still developing in the 1980s’, did not have the muscle to counter the campaign.  This resulted in the prevalence of rural poverty caused by the smear campaign.

The labeling of palm oil as an unhealthy oil has been proven to be incorrect. In fact, palm oil is superior to soybean oil:  it does not have cholesterol and it helps in the reduction of LDL.  It has Vitamin E & K, two very important nutrients for human health. The USFDA , in February 2018, assured the public of the safety of palm oil.

Although over the last two decades Malaysia has tried to counter the smear campaign, the damage was done.  Today in Malaysia, one still witnesses ‘hostile’ reactions from Western friends who are served foods cooked in palm oil!!

Today, the palm oil battle is fought on the environmental front. But that is another story.

Sad to say that such smear tactics are still being used by large companies to smear other products.

The losers are the indigenous farmers and villagers. Their pristine, 100% organic products cultivated from their land or harvested from the surrounding jungle can’t be sold or fetch so little money, that there is little incentive to harvest the jungle produce or cultivate the produce in a sustainable way. The non-profits which are helping them do not have the money to counter the smear campaigns such as the one carried out on You-tube to label all cinnamon as ‘not the true cinnamon’ except for the cinnamon produced in Sri Lanka. 

Three sacks of Bario cinnamon collected by a group of farmers from the community forest in April 2018

Cinnamon sticks are dried on a long table in Bario Asal, Bario, with much care from the community


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