Going Mobil

By MARCO TRBOVICH  |  August 26, 2009

Schmertz's mastery is a result of his decision to abandon the oil industry's dependence on Republican influence to shape political thought and public opinion. Mobil's chairman, Raleigh Warner, has said that 10 years ago, he could pick up the phone and call (former Oklahoma Senator) Bob Kerr, Lyndon Johnson and Carl Albert, and big oil could get almost anything it wanted; now, he explains, he has to talk to all 535 members of Congress. But by going directly to the public through media advertising, Mobil has used communications for grassroots suasion. As Vallely puts it, "They generate voices."

To achieve this goal, Schmertz capitalized on what Vallely and Whitehead term "the emergence of the new grassroots" and "the rise of extra-partisan strategies." In a proposal urging the United Auto Workers to take a similar advertising tack in order to counter corporate advocacy, they asserted that "grassroots feeling used to be tapped through face-to-face forms of persuasion and organizing . . . . The new channels of communication – print and mail and television – make these old forms of persuasion far less effective."

The corporate sector, they content, circumvents political parties and elections by advertising year-round, including in traditional Democratic areas. "As a result, the corporate communications machine has been able to blur and to muddy what used to be a sharp profile of the Democratic Party's popular economic philosophy. This philosophy said, 'The little buy is better off on bread-and-butter issues if there's a Democrat in the White House'" – a philosophy Herb Schmertz has been working hard to undermine with Mobil's advertising.

Lest Schmertz be mistaken for a benign technocrat innocently making a fortune while masquerading as an oil executive, let the corporate theology he espoused in a speech before the American Iron and Steel Institute in September of 1978 dispel any such notion.

"Through the 1960s and right to this day," he said, "a strong undercurrent of anti-business sentimnent has made it difficult for corporations to get a fair hearing in the forum of national debate." A particular problem in Schmertz's view was that "the academic community has trained nearly a generation of young Americans in a catechism which holds that 'big is bad.'" And he added: "Sad to say, the free American press – print and electronic – has been caught up in this anti-business maelstrom." With a level of self-pity that suggests paranoia, Schmertz complained that "business, and business alone, is being challenged in its exercise of the right to free speech, and I'm afraid business will continue to be challenged for some time to come."

One of the challengers was the Massachusetts legislature, which enacted in 1975 a law prohibiting corporations from advertising in referendum campaigns in which their own economic interests were not directly at stake. The First National Bank of Boston challenged the law right up to the Supreme Court, where it was defended by Attorney General Frank Bellotti. In a historic 5-4 decision, Justice Powell, with Chief Justice Berger concurring, ruled in favor of First National. Schmertz publicly champions the decision in "the Bellotti case," as it has come to be known, as one that showed "corporations have a right to speak out on the issues, and what they say should carry no less weight because the speaker is a corporation and not an individual."

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