The Playbook by Jennifer Jacquet review – a machiavellian guide to corporate deception

The author brilliantly unmasks the devious strategies large companies use to deflect, neutralise and counter any science that threatens profits, but offers no remedy for the problem

When evidence emerged that smoking was linked to lung cancer, tobacco companies formulated a clear strategy. By investing in doubt and even denial, as Jennifer Jacquet puts it, they delivered delay. So they suggested that the case was not yet watertight, that factors other than smoking were involved or that we needed more research. And that put off the day when governments insisted on warning labels, consumers changed their buying habits and companies faced legal challenges. In the same way, eye-wateringly expensive efforts to deny – or cast severe doubt on – the clear conclusions of climate science have delivered huge “payoffs” for interested parties such as oil companies, including what the book describes as “effectively zero legally binding international policy”.

The basic story may be broadly familiar, but Jacquet has found a brilliantly effective way of revealing just how extensive and systematic such corporate strategies are – by creating a machiavellian secret guide for executives worried about what the latest science might mean for their business. The Playbook claims to “contain sensitive information” and to be “not meant for distribution”. Countless examples of corporate deviousness are presented as success stories. Whenever research “implicates a product in a problem”, we read, companies and other interested parties should rely on a tried-and-tested, four-stage “arsenal” of responses.

Jennifer Jacquet: ‘gleefully amoral, devil’s advocate approach’
Jennifer Jacquet: ‘gleefully amoral, devil’s advocate approach’. Photograph: pr handout

The most basic is to “challenge the problem” itself: refer to cancer as “biological activity” and insist on the term “biosolids” instead of “toxic sludge”. The next step is to challenge claims about causation. Acid rain might be the result of volcanic activity and not sulphur dioxide pollution. The varroa mite, rather than pesticides, could explain a decline in bee numbers. Any vaguely “credible alternative hypothesis” creates doubt and therefore buys time.

If neither of these tactics works, corporations need to play dirtier and “challenge the messenger”. When confronted with “scientists, activists, and reporters whose work will ultimately put business operations at risk”, Jacquet (or her evil alter ego) advises, “call them apocalyptic, biased, doom and gloom, hysterical, radical. Intimidate or coerce them. These tactics have the added effect of discouraging young professionals from asking similar questions.”

The Playbook offers plentiful examples of how corporations try to keep critics in line. When Berkeley biologist Tyrone Hayes published findings about the dangers of a particular pesticide, skilful use of search engine optimisation meant that an advertisement reading “Tyrone Hayes not credible” popped up in response to online searches for him. He also claimed that a large agrichemical company was behind “derogatory remarks about his appearance, his speaking style, and even his sexual proclivities”.

Something similar happened to Jane Mayer, author of the 2016 exposé Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, who alleged: “I’ve been a reporter for a long time, covering wars, the CIA, presidencies and a lot of very powerful organisations. But the Kochs [Charles and his late brother, David, who together headed Koch Industries, the second largest privately owned company in the US] are the only people I’ve ever covered who have hired a private investigator to try to dig up dirt and plant untrue stories about me in order to hurt my reputation.”

But what happens if, despite all such efforts, it becomes widely accepted that a product or industry does have damaging effects? The final string in the corporations’ bow is to challenge any proposed solutions as arbitrary, ineffective, a waste of taxpayers’ money, a case of “government overreach” or a poor substitute for a technological fix that is always just around the corner. When in doubt, suggests Jacquet, throw in an emotional appeal: “A soda tax is regressive and therefore disproportionately impacts poor people... Global warming policy will ‘kill the African dream’ and condemn the poorest countries to ‘perpetual poverty’.”

Though the satirical mask occasionally slips, The Playbook’s gleefully amoral, devil’s advocate approach makes it far more entertaining, but also far more disturbing, than a more sober historical account or polemic would be. What is less clear is what we can do about the corporate obfuscation it showcases. “A fundamental principle of scientific knowledge,” the book points out, “is that it is always open to revision. This revisionist quality is what makes science dependable over long time periods, but also creates opportunities to challenge science in the short term.” For any piece of research, one can raise legitimate questions about “how data are interpreted, the assumptions built into models, alternate hypotheses, uncertainty, confidence, the strengths and weaknesses of randomised control trials, the standards of statistical significance, possible confounding factors”. Medical research on animals can be embraced if the results serve corporate agendas or robustly rejected if they don’t.

Yet its “revisionist quality” is presumably a feature and not a bug of the scientific method. Does this not mean it will always be open to abuse by corporations and others? I am unclear whether Jacquet wants us to come away with such a pessimistic conclusion.

• The Playbook: How to Deny Science, Sell Lies, and Make a Killing in the Corporate World by Jennifer Jacquet is published by Allen Lane (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply


Matthew Reisz

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Move Fast and Break Things review – Google, Facebook and Amazon exposed
Jonathan Taplin reveals how three companies subverted the internet’s utopian ideals

John Naughton

17, Apr, 2017 @6:30 AM

Article image
The Trick review - William Leith on how to make a packet
The journalist and writer turns his stream-of-consciousness style to a question that has always niggled him – why isn’t he rich?

Tim Adams

20, Apr, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World – review
Ten years after the 2008 financial crash comes economist Adam Tooze’s compelling analysis of what really happened, and where we stand now

Yanis Varoufakis

12, Aug, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Nothing But a Circus: Misadventures Among the Powerful by Daniel Levin – review
This exposé of global movers and shakers is entertaining – but why is the author so surprised to learn that such people are often corrupt?

John Kampfner

15, Jan, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
When McKinsey Comes to Town: The Hidden Influence of the World’s Most Powerful Consulting Firm – review
Walt Bogdanich and Michael Forsythe’s devastating investigation into the consulting firm uncovers a story of secrecy, delusion and untold harm

Tim Adams

31, Oct, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Mail Men: The Unauthorized Story of the Daily Mail – the Paper That Divided and Conquered Britain by Adrian Addison – review
A rollicking history of the Daily Mail charts its rise from 60s doldrums to middle England’s paper of record

Peter Preston

20, Mar, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
Don’t Be Evil review – how the tech giants have become too big to fail
Rana Foroohar’s masterly critique of the internet pioneers who now dominate our world

John Naughton

03, Nov, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Democracy for Sale by Peter Geoghegan review – the end of politics as we know it?
The openDemocracy journalist delves into the web of power, money and data manipulation that is bringing our electoral system to its knees

John Naughton

16, Aug, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
The 100 best nonfiction books: No 48 – The Economic Consequences of the Peace by John Maynard Keynes (1919)
The great economist’s account of what went wrong at the Versailles conference after the first world war was polemical, passionate and prescient

Robert McCrum

02, Jan, 2017 @5:45 AM

Article image
A Farewell to Ice by Peter Wadhams review – climate change writ large
The warning this book gives us about the consequences of the loss of the planet’s ice is emphatic, urgent and convincing

Horatio Clare

21, Aug, 2016 @6:00 AM