Big Tobacco’s lies and the ‘Four Dog’ issue strategy

One of the most extraordinary events in recent issue management is a newly-launched advertising campaign in the US, with Big Tobacco publicly admitting they lied about the health impact of cigarettes.

Critics probably thought it would never happen, but the back-story behind the campaign shows that the notorious Four Dog issue strategy is alive and well.

The so-called Four Dog Defence emerged in the 1950’s as a way to illustrate the long-game technique used by controversial products to create confusion and delay.

It works like this.

Step One. My dog doesn’t bite (denial of a problem)

Step Two. My dog bites, but it didn’t bite you (denial of responsibility)

Step Three. If my dog bit you, you weren’t seriously hurt (minimisation)

Step Four: If you got bitten, you probably provoked the dog (blame shifting)

Issue activists have long accused various industries of employing this strategy, including pesticides, banking and Genetically Modified Organisms. Earlier this year Coca-Cola was forced to deny it had used “tobacco-style deception” in relation to obesity, and just last month the sugar industry was accused of trying to obscure the link between sugar and heart disease.

But the recognised origin of the Four Dog Strategy is in the tobacco industry, and this is clearly on show with the current American campaign of “corrective advertising.”

Over a decade ago, US Federal Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that tobacco companies had conspired to deceive the American public about the adverse impact of smoking and to deny marketing to children. In 2006 she ordered them to use television and newspaper advertising and company websites to publish corrective statements about the health effect of smoking, second-hand smoke and other concerns.

In line with their proven strategy, the companies then spent the next eleven years appealing and negotiating over detail until late November 2017, when the court-ordered advertisements finally began to appear in more than 50 newspapers and on the major TV networks. As American academic Stan Glantz commented: “The tobacco companies’ basic strategy for everything, whether it’s science or regulation or litigation, is delay . . .  But better late than never.”

Thanks largely to successful campaigning by Big Tobacco, the American public currently don’t see mandated graphic warnings on cigarette packs, as in parts of Europe, or plain packaging, as in Australia. So they are unlikely to fully understand the background to the deliberately boring TV ads now running at the start of a year-long campaign (The actual advertisements can be seen here). The Guardian called it a “tobacco mea culpa” but for the industry it is more likely simply another step on a long and twisting road.

As an issue management strategy, the Four Dog Defence is tried and true and might seem smart and effective. But it’s also dubious and dangerous, and it just might position your product or your organisation in a place you surely don’t want to be.



About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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