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What is Grass-Roots?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, March 14 2006

The theme of Esther Dyson's annual PC Forum conference this year is "Erosion of Power: Users in Charge," but as I listened to this morning's panel on "Behavioral Targeting 2.0," I found myself wondering if there was an unintended double meaning in the word "users."

Arvind Rajan, President and CEO of Grassroots Enterprise, talked about how his company has developed a thriving business generating grass-roots activity around issues being debated in Washington. He noted that their clients included the Sierra Club, the National Rifle Association and the Republican National Committee, adding, "Most of our business has been corporations and trade associations seeking to influence what goes on in Washington."

"We're never communicating with an individual who hasn't opted in," Rajan said. He added that they may not be aware that the company is keeping track of their past behavior on behalf of a client, but argued "if I know what really motivates you is spotted owls, then I won't present information to you about the Arctic."

Interestingly, given his choice of examples, who but Carl Pope of the Sierra Club should pop up at a mike to ask Rajan a question: "To what extent are your capabilities being deployed with transparency? Is this genuine grass-roots or astro-turf? Do the end-users know who the ultimate clients are?"

Rajan answered forthrightly: "While we often have clients who want to hide behind another organization, we tell them that's a mistake--it will eventually come out on the front page of the Washington Post if they do. We never hide who the ultimate client is."

After the panel was over, I bumped into Rajan and suggested that maybe his company needed to do more to assure people that what they were doing was real and not manipulative. When we see a 30-second TV ad or a full-page newspaper ad, I argued, we know it's coming from a Big Interest of some kind and view it with appropriate skepticism. But when we go online, because of the lower barriers to entry, we may think that the messages we're seeing there are more organic. I suggested that maybe Grassroots Enterprise ought to be saying more about who its clients are, to enhance transparency and trust.

He disagreed. Oglivy & Mather, he said, doesn't get its name on an ad it makes for GM, and none of the clients of Grassroots Enterprise wanted to have the company's brand on their online marketing efforts either--nor should they, he argued. An online campaign we do on behalf of Pfizer, he said, would be labeled as Pfizer's.

Fair enough. But I'm left with questions. On the one hand, you could argue that one person's "grass-roots" is another person's "astro-turf." If Pfizer can convince drug consumers that they should support legislation to lengthen their patents, say, isn't this just democracy at work? On the other hand, when a corporation or trade association can spend large amounts on an online campaign targeting individuals, bloggers and so on--is that still a "grass-roots" campaign? Should there be a higher standard of disclosure online?