What’s Popularity Laundering?


A distinct segment business has sprung up round what’s known as “popularity laundering.” A rising variety of PR companies, advert companies, lobbyists, and attorneys have begun to cater to company and personal shoppers who aren’t pleased with the way in which the general public sees them. Usually with billions of {dollars} at stake, they’re keen to pay a substantial amount of cash to vary that view.

Typically these firms merely wish to change an opinion of their enterprise practices, whereas different instances they’re obfuscating how they do enterprise. In excessive instances, the businesses are literally masking up unlawful actions or committing crimes within the means of making an attempt to painting themselves in a greater gentle to the general public.


Laundering vs. popularity restore

There’s a distinction between popularity laundering and repairing a popularity.

Often, a popularity wants restore due to a misstep that an organization owns as much as and needs to repair. It could possibly be an promoting mistake, the actions of an worker, or a misguided coverage. Typically it isn’t even one thing that’s their fault, comparable to an exterior group that has raised issues and even an unfounded accusation.

The predominant level of popularity restore is that the corporate acknowledges the issue, is working to repair it, and is often striving to turn out to be a greater firm.

In distinction, popularity laundering is often about masking up actions that an organization would not need the general public to see. It could possibly be ongoing insurance policies or previous deeds. Usually the method is unethical and generally unlawful. Laundering is usually when an organization is solely making an attempt to cowl up its actions and go on with enterprise as regular.

Corporations that use popularity laundering may be concerned in an business that has a unfavorable look, comparable to tobacco or oil. With a view to keep worthwhile in altering social instances, these firms want to search out methods to shift public notion of themselves. They could even have supported unpopular political or social insurance policies and wish to divert consideration from these decisions. Typically they get away with it, however typically they’re caught within the act. 

Make no mistake, popularity restore and laundry are two fully various things. Hiring a agency to get your finest foot ahead or to advertise your actual values is way totally different than having a publicist or media agency cowl up your misdeeds and actions. 

The rise of popularity laundering

The time period popularity laundering was first used within the Nineteen Nineties with a nod to the traditional idea of cash laundering, when unlawful income are funneled via professional sources to “clear” them.

Nevertheless, utilizing the general public look of optimistic acts to vary opinion is nothing new. It may be seen within the actions of industrialists Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller on the flip of the twentieth century. On the time, these males and their companies have been seen as nice donors as a result of the general public noticed their names on universities and different charities. Nevertheless, with the passage of time and scrutiny of their enterprise practices and misdeeds, their true motivations got here to gentle. Historians now argue how their actions have been to cement their identify within the public consciousness as do-gooders.

As company conglomerates grew bigger and the rise of the data age arrived, firms wanted to discover a technique to maintain their picture in a optimistic gentle with the explosion of the web and altering social values. With this, the expansion of an business of publicity companies, attorneys, and “fixers” arose. Utilizing the explosion of social media and “pretend information,” the duty of laundering reputations started a completely new age.

Kinds of popularity laundering

Astroturfing and greenwashing

The act of “astroturfing” is the creation of a pretend grassroots motion that appears to help a sure agenda or firm. In actuality, the motion is created by an organization or its PR staff to be able to type a optimistic public opinion, despite the fact that it’s based mostly on a false agenda. A generally seen model of that is for firms to rent folks to attend occasions or protests and help the corporate that secretly introduced them in.

In 2008, the FCC was holding hearings about media firms, web neutrality, and the free circulate of knowledge. Comcast was found to have employed folks to fill the listening to and help the corporate. Whereas Comcast claimed the folks have been solely “seat heaters” holding house for late-arriving staff, media investigations did not agree. Not solely did this seem to create a groundswell of help for Comcast, however it additionally stored professional opponents out of the room.

One other method to vary public sentiment is “greenwashing.” That is when an organization makes itself seem environmentally pleasant when its precise practices are removed from it. One recurring instance of that is when firms declare their packaging is recyclable when it’s not.

Numerous firms have been caught touting their inexperienced practices in commercials till their precise environmental practices have been revealed. In 2022, Coca-Cola fell into this after they launched a marketing campaign about their ecologically pleasant practices. Their “World With out Waste” marketing campaign claimed they have been a sustainable enterprise, and the advertisements used outstanding inexperienced imagery. Citing public research, environmental watchdog teams argued that Coca-Cola creates three million tons of plastic merchandise a 12 months, double the subsequent firms on the checklist.

Political affect

Lobbyists are nothing new. Firms rent advocates not solely to affect politicians to create legal guidelines of their favor however to vote in opposition to investigations which will reveal unfavorable data or legal actions of the corporate.

For years the tobacco business was one of many greatest culprits of this, spending billions of {dollars} to have legal guidelines modified, head-off investigations, and work to trigger a degree of distrust of rules. The business was additionally notorious for placing cheap doubt into authorities hearings with the “unsure” motion when it got here to most cancers. They even paid docs to testify that smoking did not trigger most cancers. In 2006, a courtroom discovered the tobacco business responsible of at the least 145 acts of bribery, racketeering, and different illegal actions. 

Working with the media

One other highly effective method firms launder their popularity is thru the media. Usually they offer information retailers entry to data or connections within the hope of utilizing this relationship to form information tales. Whereas the massive majority of journalists and media retailers do not participate on this or put disclaimers on broadcasts saying their connection to firms and potential conflicts of curiosity, there are instances the place it has occurred on a grand scale.

With the expansion of large-scale company mergers, many firms started to put their merchandise on networks they now owned. For years, Common Electrical was accused of utilizing NBC tv as a method of presenting the corporate in a optimistic gentle. It even grew to become a joke on the sitcom 30 Rock.

Typically the laundering of a popularity is solely achieved to create believable deniability, giving a seed of doubt to the general public. With the present panorama of social media, that is frequent as firms rent and pay influencers and different media accounts to supply different concepts and tales. They will even go so far as casting doubt on opponents to be able to draw consideration away from the reality.

Authorized strong-arming

One tactic utilized in laundering is to rent authorized companies to threaten those that make accusations, even when they’re appropriate. Due to deep pockets, firms can typically outlast smaller, much less well-funded organizations or people who’re making the accusations. Attorneys even threaten them with countersuits or libel instances.

When CBS president Les Moonves was accused of sexual assault, he used the complete powers of the corporate and authorized groups in an try to guard himself and maintain the reality from buyers. In the long term, the techniques have been unsuccessful and it not solely broken his popularity and profession however brought on main issues with a merger the corporate had been engaged on. Finally, CBS and Moonves needed to pay a $30.5 million settlement.

Donations to charities, social organizations,  and colleges

Philanthropy is a legitimate effort when an organization provides again to the neighborhood via donations of cash, time, or product. Whereas they do typically obtain tax breaks or different monetary incentives in addition to optimistic publicity, that is totally different than making a social picture change attributable to improprieties or unhealthy enterprise practices.

Usually rich CEOs or enterprise house owners will donate to a college and obtain press, entry, or at instances even a constructing of their identify. For a lot of, it is a pursuit of publicity and legitimacy, however for others it permits them to cement their legacy and infrequently join the identify of their enterprise with that faculty and better training for generations.

Typically, these people are labeled as “tainted donors,” leaving establishments in a tough place of turning down badly wanted funds to be able to make an ethical stand.

Investing in sports activities groups or occasions

Additionally referred to as “sportwashing,” that is the apply of an organization sponsoring or partnering with a sports activities staff or putting their identify on a stadium in an try to boost the extent of optimistic reference to their company or model. That is not at all a brand new apply. Sporting occasions have been used as a political software by international locations, oppressive regimes, and firms for over a century as a software to make them look higher.

Whereas not an organization, just lately the nation of Qatar got here below hearth for this apply when it hosted the 2022 world cup. Accused of human rights violations and with out a historical past of soccer as a nationwide presence, the nation poured limitless cash into the occasion with blended outcomes and amidst public scrutiny.

From a company angle, one instance of sportwashing is AIA, a Chinese language insurance coverage firm that companions with the Tottenham soccer staff in the UK. AIA has been accused of supporting anti-human rights and strong-arm political actions in Hong Kong. Many watchdog teams have seen their sponsorship as an try to realize favor in different international locations and sweep their political stances below the rug. Tottenham has been referred to as upon to drop them as a companion. 

Though achieved in a extra comedian type, tv character Jeremy Clarkson sponsored his native soccer staff in an try to boost his degree of popularity for his farm featured on the Amazon present “Clarkson’s Farm.” On the present, he brazenly hinted that it was a technique to create a greater popularity with the local people who didn’t take to his farm or a lot of his enterprise practices.


    • Popularity laundering is the motion of masking up or erasing misdeeds, unfavorable enterprise practices, or unlawful actions of an organization
    • Usually this contains donations to universities, establishments, or different charities
    • An business has grown up across the want, together with PR companies, attorneys, and lobbyists
    • Misinformation is one other software and may be referred to as astroturfing when it’s a pretend grassroots motion created by an organization
    • Greenwashing is usually used to cowl up non-environmental practices with claims of the opposite in commercials and ads
    • Corporations will make donations to varsities and charities or align themselves with athletic groups in an effort to show public opinion of their favor
    • Popularity laundering is way totally different from popularity restore: Laundering seeks to cowl up unlawful actions and unhealthy practices whereas popularity restore includes fixing issues inside an organization or model and growing a optimistic picture based mostly on the true actions of the corporate


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