Freeway Rick Ross: From drug-trafficking and CIA connections, to a biopic directed by Nick Cassavetes, the former ‘Donald Trump of crack’ becomes the patron saint of South Central
|Rick Ross at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica|
Ross is on the freeway heading north toward Santa Monica from LAX. He is just back from Philly with the sniffles, and the sparkle in his eye is the maniacal megalomania that drives kings of industry and heads of state. The former undisputed Donald Trump of crack is deceptively understated in a black hoodie, cap and jeans, with the meticulously maintained beard of a Fortune 500 CEO. Back in the day he was annually banking a sum that would equal $3 billion in today’s money.
“I got a cold” is his mantra for an evening of opting for elbow bumps in lieu of handshakes at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, where the other LAPD (Los Angeles Poverty Department) is putting on State of Incarceration. The nonprofit performance group is made up primarily of homeless people. Their show is a multimedia uprising that includes a life-size prison dorm complete with some real-live former inmates mixed in the cast.
As soon as his feet hit the pavement, Ross is swarmed by fans who want a piece of the underlord’s magic. The hood loves Rick like Queens loves Gotti. He’s the patron saint of South Central. “How the fuck do these people like me here like this … a fucking guy who sold drugs.”
Ross did the thing the government wouldn’t do: He brought real money into South L.A. communities, which put food in the refrigerator and paid the rent. “Transgenerational poverty,” he explains. “No financial infrastructure, and then along comes somebody like me. When you break down on paper, 100 kilos of cocaine turns into, like, $8 million that circulated in our community.”
The socially conscious website he masterminded in a prison cell after reading about Facebook in The Wall Street Journal is getting 3 million hits a month. TheFreewayenterprise.com agenda is simple: education, not incarceration. “You can’t get rid of the dope dealer and solve the problems. They’ll find themselves another dealer. This is not a problem you can incarcerate your way out of.”
|Rick Ross at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica|
Ross is focused on the road ahead. Still, there is a visible scar just under the social skin, which needs some scratching. A part of him is still standing at the podium in the courtroom the day he got a life sentence. “My mom broke down crying. Everybody in the courtroom was hoping that they didn’t give me life, except the prosecutor and the DA — they loved it. Right now I’m going to punish him [Assistant U.S. Attorney L.J. O’Neale] with success,” he laughs. “I don’t wanna punch him in the face or shoot him, but I know it’s going to kill him when I get a Grammy or an Emmy. He can’t take it.” Ross laughs again.
“They had never seen anybody think like me. I beat him at his own game. A guy who grew up in South Central, who couldn’t read or write, in a courtroom debating the law with a Yale grad … and I showed him in his law books where he was wrong and I was right.”
He laughs till his laughter feeds itself and then laughs some more.
|Rick Ross at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica|
The father of six sons, Ross offers a legal analysis in child-size bites. “If you got a kid and you come in and he spilled the milk on the floor and he had cereal and he poured them out, he knocked the cookie jar over and broke out a window … you know, he just acted a fool that day. You can whup him for all those things, but you can’t whup him separately for each. You get one whupping and that’s it. He’s been punished. You don’t whup him in a year and do it again and say, ‘I’m whupping you for the milk this time. Last time it was for the cereal.'”
As a schoolkid Ross pursued a tennis scholarship, but the whole thing evaporated when his coach discovered he was illiterate. Later, in college, he started selling cocaine to pay for tennis lessons.
“I never was a drug dealer. I was a businessman who sold drugs. I used to hustle bottles and cans, wash cars and cut yards when I was a kid. I was looking for opportunity. Everybody wants to be a person of means. Nobody wants to be a nobody. Everybody wants to be loved and cared about. That’s what I was after all my life.”
Ross is still smiling as he gets in the car with his lawyer, former prosecutor Antonio Moore, Esq. They’re heading to the 10 East to meet a guy named Gizmo at the Kress nightclub on Hollywood Boulevard for the Cage vs. Cons party.
- Received June 15, 2011.
- Accepted September 9, 2011
Hair relaxers are used by millions of black women, possibly exposing them to various chemicals through scalp lesions and burns. In the Black Women’s Health Study, the authors assessed hair relaxer use in relation to uterine leiomyomata incidence. In 1997, participants reported on hair relaxer use (age at first use, frequency, duration, number of burns, and type of formulation).
From 1997 to 2009, 23,580 premenopausal women were followed for incident uterine leiomyomata. Multivariable Cox regression was used to estimate incidence rate ratios and 95% confidence intervals. During 199,991 person-years, 7,146 cases of uterine leiomyomata were reported as confirmed by ultrasound (n = 4,630) or surgery (n = 2,516). The incidence rate ratio comparing ever with never use of relaxers was 1.17 (95% confidence interval (CI): 1.06, 1.30).
Positive trends were observed for frequency of use (Ptrend < 0.001), duration of use (Ptrend = 0.015), and number of burns (Ptrend < 0.001). Among long-term users (≥10 years), the incidence rate ratios for frequency of use categories 3–4, 5–6, and ≥7 versus 1–2 times/year were 1.04 (95% CI: 0.92, 1.19), 1.12 (95% CI: 0.99, 1.27), and 1.15 (95% CI: 1.01, 1.31), respectively (Ptrend = 0.002). Risk was unrelated to age at first use or type of formulation. These findings raise the hypothesis that hair relaxer use increases uterine leiomyomata risk.
Childhood hair product use and earlier age at menarche in a racially diverse study population: a pilot study.
Previous studies suggest that hair products containing endocrine disrupting chemicals could alter puberty. We evaluated the association between childhood hair product use and age at menarche in a racially diverse study population.
We recruited 300 African-American, African-Caribbean, Hispanic, and white women from the New York City metropolitan area who were between 18-77 years of age. Data were collected retrospectively on hair oil, lotion, leave-in conditioner, perm, and other types of hair products used before age 13. Recalled age at menarche ranged from 8 to 19 years. We used multivariable binomial regression to evaluate the association between hair product use and age at menarche (<12 vs. ≥12), adjusting for potential confounders.
African-Americans were more likely to use hair products and reached menarche earlier than other racial/ethnic groups. Women reporting childhood hair oil use had a risk ratio of 1.4 (95% confidence interval [CI]: 1.1-1.9) for earlier menarche, adjusting for race/ethnicity and year of birth. Hair perm users had an increased risk for earlier menarche (adjusted risk ratio = 1.4, 95% CI: 1.1-1.8). Other types of hair products assessed in this study were not associated with earlier menarche.
Childhood hair oil and perm use were associated with earlier menarche. If replicated, these results suggest that hair product use may be important to measure in evaluating earlier age at menarche.
Copyright © 2011 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Chapter 1: Conspiracy Theories Everywhere
Conspiracy theories – the fear of nonexistent conspiracies – are flourishing in the United States. Republican, Democratic, and independent presidential candidates espouse them. Growing political institutions (the Nation of Islam, the militias) are premised on them. A majority of Americans say they believe John F. Kennedy was killed not by a lone gunman but by a conspiracy, and a majority of black Americans hold the U.S. government responsible for the spread of drugs. O. J. Simpson famously beat his criminal rap by convincing a jury of a conspiracy theory: that the Los Angeles police framed him. Two young men, their heads spinning with conspiracy theories about Washington taking freedoms away from Americans, blew up a government building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 (including 19 children) and wounding 550.
This suspicious approach even affects the actions of government. Legislation in New York State requires schools to teach about the Irish potato famine with the intent to show, as New York’s Governor George E. Pataki commented while signing the bill, that the famine was “the result of a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the Irish people the food they needed to survive.” A Conference of the States, planned for October 1995 in Philadelphia, was to have asserted state power at the expense of the Federal government. But when the extreme Right got wind of this meeting, it floated conspiracy theories about its being a sneaky effort to subvert the Constitution and submit the United States to a one-world government – proved by the fact that the conference had been scheduled to coincide exactly with the United Nations’ fiftieth anniversary. So effective was this campaign that one state after another backed out, the conference had to be canceled, and the debate over federalism was ruptured.
A survey of conspiracy theories in American public life shows that these tend to come disproportionately from two broad groups of people: the politically disaffected and the culturally suspicious.
Conspiracy theory is the sophistication of the ignorant.
– Richard Grenier
Among the politically disaffected, the black community and the hard Right are most overtly conspiracy theory-minded. Both dislike the existing order and offer radical ideas about changing it; both resort to an outlook that depends heavily on the existence of powerful forces engaged in plots.
Conspiracy theories may well be most prevalent in black America. A columnist calls these “the life blood of the African-American community,” and a clinical psychologist notes that there is “probably no conspiracy involving African-Americans that was too far-fetched, too fantastic, or too convoluted.” She finds four recurring themes, all centered on the U.S. government: it uses blacks as guinea pigs, imposes bad habits on them, targets their leaders, and decimates their population.
But the sense of being surrounded by evildoers shows up in many ways, ranging from the petty to the cosmic, and does not always focus on the government. In a minor but indicative example, a new and inexpensive drink named Tropical Fantasy appeared throughout the northeastern United States in September 1990 and sold extremely well in low-income neighborhoods during the next half year. The fact that most of its Brooklyn, New York, employees were black made the beverage the more appealing. But anonymous leaflets turned up in black areas in early 1991, warning that the soft drink was manufactured by the Ku Klux Klan and contained “stimulants to sterilize the black man.” Although journalistic and police investigations found this accusation to be completely fraudulent, it struck a chord among consumers, and sales plummeted by 70 percent. Other products, including Kool and Uptown cigarettes, Troop Sport clothing, Church’s Fried Chicken, and Snapple soft drinks, suffered from similar slanders about the KKK and causing impotence, and they too went into a commercial tailspin.
On a larger scale, the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., continue to arouse suspicions among blacks. Nation of Islam leaders point to the FBI’s not protecting Malcolm X; in King’s case, they claim the U.S. government “set up his death.” Joseph Lowery, another black leader, agrees: “We have never stopped believing for a moment that there was not some government complicity in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.” The activist Dick Gregory, a comedian who long ago gave up laughs for conspiracy theories, also blames King’s death on a government plot, as he does the mysterious murder of twenty-eight blacks in Atlanta in 1979-81 (which he ascribes to government scientists’ taking the tips of their penises to use in a serum for countering cancer).
But the two main conspiracy theories concern fears that the U.S. government takes steps to sabotage blacks and the cluster of accusations promoted by Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.
AIDS and Drugs. The disproportionate incidence of AIDS and drug use among blacks prompts prominent figures to endorse a conspiracy theory that the U.S. government is behind these epidemics. The comedian Bill Cosby asserts that AIDS was “started by human beings to get after certain people they don’t like.” The movie director Spike Lee announced (in an advertisement for the Benetton clothing shops, of all places) that “AIDS is a government-engineered disease.” On late-night television, rap singer Kool Moe Dee portrayed AIDS as a genocidal plot against blacks, with no dissent from host Arsenio Hall. A mass-circulation magazine for blacks ran as its cover story, “AIDS: Is It Genocide?” Steven Cokely, a well-known former Chicago municipal official, gave the plot an antisemitic twist, telling of Jewish doctors who injected black babies with AIDS as part of a plot to take over the world. Drugs and crime inspire similar fears. In the acclaimed 1991 movie about black life, Boyz ‘N’ the Hood, a character proffers a full-blown conspiracy theory about crack and guns being available to blacks because “they want us to kill each other off. What they couldn’t do to us in slavery, they are making us do to ourselves.”
With a black leadership falling over itself to endorse such ideas, it comes as little surprise that a 1990 poll showed 29 percent of black New Yorkers stating their belief in AIDS’ being “deliberately created in a laboratory in order to infect black people,” and 60 percent thinking the government was “deliberately” making drugs available to poor blacks.
These views set the stage for the sensational reception given “Dark Alliance,” a three-part series published in the San Jose Mercury News in August 1996. The author, Gary Webb, strongly implied that the Central Intelligence Agency knew about drug dealing in Los Angeles by anticommunist Nicaraguans but did not stop them because it welcomed the funds they sent to the contras fighting in Nicaragua. Cocaine, Webb states in the first article, “was virtually unobtainable in black neighborhoods before members of the Central Intelligence Agency’s army started bringing it into South-Central in the 1980s at bargain-basement prices”; this drug network “opened the first pipeline between Colombia’s cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles.” The Nicaraguan traffickers, he also maintains, “met with CIA agents both before and during the time they were selling the drugs in L.A.” This, the series suggested, made the government complicit in the spread of crack, a cocaine derivative.
The Mercury News drew this connection even more directly on the Internet. Its World Wide Web site showed the CIA insignia superimposed over a man smoking crack. In a talk-radio interview available on the Mercury News‘s state-of-the-art Web site, Gary Webb asserted that “the cocaine that was used to make the crack that flooded into L.A. in the early ’80s came from the CIA’s army.”
In addition to reviews by the CIA, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the Los Angeles sheriff that found no evidence to support Webb’s conspiracy theory, several investigative articles found his evidence lacking. The Washington Post determined that “available information does not support the conclusion that the CIA-backed contras – or Nicaraguans in general – played a major role in the emergence of crack as a narcotic in widespread use across the United States.” The Los Angeles Times stated flatly that “The crack epidemic in Los Angeles followed no blueprint or master plan. It was not orchestrated by the Contras or the CIA or any single drug ring.” The New York Times found “scant proof” to support the allegations. These and other debunkings did force the Mercury News to backtrack somewhat; the editor insisted that “Dark Alliance” had only stated that individuals associated with the CIA sold cocaine that ended up on the streets of Los Angeles, not that the CIA approved of the sales. In addition, the CIA insignia disappeared from the World Wide Web site.
This reversal had little impact on black opinion, however, which widely accepted “Dark Alliance” as truth. Leaders immediately endorsed it. Jesse Jackson accused the government, through the CIA, of being “involved in subsidizing drugs.” Dick Gregory got himself arrested at the CIA headquarters and proclaimed that “There is evidence inside those buildings that confirms that the CIA helped to destroy black folks. That’s called genocide.” Maxine Waters, South-Central Los Angeles’s member of Congress, told a rally that “People in high places, knowing about it, winking, blinking, and in South Central Los Angeles, our children were dying.”
Black journalists picked up the topic and ran with it. Derrick Z. Jackson wrote in his Boston Globe column: “the only conclusion is that Ronald Reagan said yes to crack and the destruction of black lives at home to fund the killing of commies abroad.” Wilbert Tatum, editor of the Amsterdam News, found the thesis “entirely plausible.” An editorial cartoon showed a car full of CIA agents driving in a black part of town, throwing packets of crack out of windows. The conspiracy theory even developed its own form of commerce, as Los Angeles vendors sold baseball caps reading “C.I.A. Crack Inforcement Agency.”
The CIA allegations then provided the basis for yet more sweeping accusations. Kobie Kwasi Harris, chairman of the department of Afro-American studies at San Jose State University, discerned a larger pattern: “If America had a choice they would choose a disorganized, criminal black community over an organized, radical one.” Barbara Boudreaux of the Los Angeles school board announced the existence of “a master plan to have mass genocide for every child born in the world, especially in Los Angeles and Compton.”
Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. Louis Farrakhan deserves close attention, having become not just the leading black conspiracy theorist but also America’s most prominent antisemite. In part, Farrakhan reflects Nation of Islam theology, which understands the white race’s very existence as a conspiracy directed at the elimination of blacks. Along these lines, Farrakhan’s associates at the Black Holocaust Nationhood Conference that took place just before the Million Man March of October 1995 held whites responsible for 600 million black deaths over the past six thousand years. Farrakhan’s newspaper accuses whites of pursuing this goal through many avenues, foremost of which is AIDS, “a man-made disease designed to kill us all.” (By “us,” Farrakhan includes Africans: the U.S. government shipped a billion units of AIDS to Africa, he said, to annihilate that continent’s entire population.) Other mechanisms include propaganda about black inferiority, substandard education, long prison terms, and making guns, drugs, and junk food available. Getting rid of black men through addiction, incarceration, or death also has the advantage of making black women conveniently available to white men, who then control them through a deadly combination of birth control, abortion, and welfare.
Farrakhan goes beyond the theology he inherited from his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, and displays an inclusive conspiracism of his own making. It began with the very death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975; Farrakhan rejected the official causes (heart failure and arteriosclerotic disease) and insisted that a conspiracy of family members, the U.S. government, and Sunni Arabs did him in. Farrakhan also focuses on Jews, a people the Nation of Islam had previously ignored, adopting many classic antisemitic themes. Jews, he says, are responsible for capitalism and communism, the two world wars, financing Hitler, controlling the Federal Reserve Board and Hollywood, and causing the U.S. government to go into debt. They dominate U.S. politics (“all presidents since 1932 are controlled by the Jews”) and media (“any newspaper that refused to acquiesce to controlled news was brought to its knees by withdrawing advertising. Failing this, the Jews stop the supply of news print and ink”). In all, “85 percent of the masses of the people of earth are victimized” by Jews. The Nation of Islam purveys the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious antisemitic forgery, at its meetings and publishes its own literature of conspiratorial antisemitism.
Farrakhan also makes novel assertions about Jews. They carried out the transatlantic slave trade that he claims killed 100 million Africans. Jews owned three-quarters of all slaves, and they kept the slave system functioning. They inject the AIDS virus into black newborns and puncture a hole in the ozone layer. In a particularly clever bit of revisionism, Farrakhan turns around the active and lasting Jewish participation in black civil rights efforts, claiming that it was self interested. By helping integrate blacks, he says, Jews managed to destroy the autonomous black economic institutions and took over the business for themselves. By encouraging blacks to work within the system, rather than confront it, Jews kept them from escaping the strictures of white supremacy. In all, Jewish “bloodsuckers” have successfully blocked black advancement.
The Hard Right
The Right constitutes the other organized group of malcontents. During the cold war, it feared that a conspiratorial body of Americans, known variously as the Money Power, the Insiders, the Secret Team, or the High Cabal, were ready to sell out their country to the Soviet Union, which would then establish a one-world government. Contrary to expectations, the Soviet bloc’s collapse did not end this fear. A few Rightists still worry about the Kremlin, eyeing the Soviet collapse suspiciously as a charade intended to get Americans to put down their guard. Many more continue to worry about a one-world authority, but changing the object of their worry from the (powerful) Soviet Union imposing communism to the (toothless) United Nations imposing a New World Order. The parallel between these two is quite precise; like Moscow, the U.N. disposes of mechanisms of subversion and an army of occupation.
Rightist groups expect an invasion of the United States by forces under United Nations command, sometimes called the Multi Jurisdictional Task Force. Some imagine the invasion yet to come and interpret the backs of highway signs as embedded with codes for invading troops (for example, in Michigan, blue indicates the presence of water nearby, green a resting place, and brown petrol). Others think it already underway, with some 300,000 Russian, Hong Kong, and Gurkha troops secreted away in locations around the United States. Reports are sometimes highly specific, mentioning 40,000 U.N. troops in San Diego, 14,000 in Anchorage, and a battalion of Gurkhas in Montana.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), ostensibly established to coordinate government actions in time of disaster, will first oversee the U.N. takeover, then become the “secret government” that runs the United States. As befits a planning agency, FEMA has already tested the waters; for example, it scripted the 1992 riots in Los Angeles following the Rodney King trial to test reactions to a gang uprising. Black gangs such as the Crips and the Bloods will also have a major role in enforcing the new order. Other important institutions include the Environmental Protection Agency (which will keep track of vehicles) and the National Education Association (to ensure that children get badly educated).
And where will the U.S. military be during all this? Off in distant lands, creating a New World Order under United Nations auspices. The placement of U.S. troops under U.N. command in Somalia established the precedent, which was then followed in Bosnia.
The new order will not be pleasant. Immigrants will take over the country, and Americans will lose all their constitutional rights, especially the right to bear arms. Controls will be unprecedented: “it will only be a matter of time before humans are tattooed with a similar mark” to the codes in the supermarket. Or tiny microchips will be inserted into Americans’ buttocks to keep track of each person’s whereabouts and activities. (Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, believes the government performed this operation on him during his army service.) Those who step out of line will meet with severe consequences. Dissidents will be removed by unmarked black helicopters to detention camps located at government installations such as air force bases. Some of these have already been prepared; ominously, barbed wire around an unused airfield in California faces inward. As a last resort, four crematoria have been built around the country, each capable of disposing of three thousand corpses a day, or over four million per year.
To forestall this scenario, the Right has taken a variety of steps. In 1994, it spurred the Oklahoma legislature to pass a resolution calling on the U.S. Congress “to cease any support for the establishment of a ‘new world order’ or any form of global government.” It also takes active measures, with some ten to forty thousand individuals organized into militias that train with guns during weekends in the backwoods of Michigan, Montana, and other states, preparing for the showdown. They engage in “bluehat spotting,” or watching for U.N. troops in the United States, as well as keeping a sharp eye out for black helicopters (“When I see a helicopter without markings, I refer to it as an enemy helicopter”). They also paint over highway signs – and thereby confuse highway crews, which lose their maintenance records. To get around this problem, the Indiana Transportation Department changed its methods of keeping codes, hoping this would “reassure those in the motoring public who had these suspicions.”
The militias worry not just about defending the homeland; in addition, they increasingly challenge the government of the United States. To many on the Right, Washington has been irretrievably lost to “real” Americans, and they believe it necessary to destroy the U.S. government. William Pierce, the leading exponent of insurrection, avoids charges of seditious conspiracy by presenting his ideas in the form of novels. In The Turner Diaries, called “the bible of the extremist Right,” he recounts with chilling enthusiasm the story of the Organization, an underground racist white group financed through counterfeiting and robbing Jewish stores. The action culminates in a racial uprising and the “Day of the Rope,” when whites who have “betrayed their race” hang from tens of thousands of lampposts. Then follow massacres of Jews and blacks. Ultimately the Organization takes over the government. In a second novel, Hunter, an admiring Pierce tells the story of a single individual who kills miscegenists, Jews, and others unsuited to live in his vision of America. Pierce does not hide his operational ambitions in writing these novels: “I don’t write just for entertainment. It’s to explain things to people. I’d like to see North America become a white continent.”
Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed!
– U.S. bumper sticker, 1970s
Paranoids have the facts.
– Oliver Stone
One doesn’t have to live in the inner city or in Montana to worry about plots; conspiracy theories also flourish among society’s favored. Plenty of centrist, rich, and educated people share this disposition, including presidential candidates and important figures in popular culture.
That several recent candidates for the presidency of the United States espouse conspiracism displays the prevalence of this mentality; that none of them came close to victory points to its limits. Their numbers include three Republicans, one Democrat, and two independents.
Patrick Buchanan. Republican Patrick Buchanan ran for election in 1992 and 1996 and, the second time especially, spoke in the hoary tradition of American populism. “Real power in America belongs to the Manhattan Money Power,” he stated, recalling an archaic term referring to bank and financial interests. He raised the bogey of a New World Order, by which he meant a situation in which Americans no longer retained full sovereignty; instead, the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Court, and World Trade Organization would make the key decisions. He deemed American taxpayers the “designated fall guys of the New World Order.”
Pat Robertson. The American evangelist and politician Pat Robertson, a 1988 candidate, is the presidential aspirant with the most elaborate ideas about a plot against the United States; he may also be the single most influential conspiracy theorist in the contemporary United States. But, it bears noting, few of the following ideas are original to Robertson himself, and he kept them almost completely under wraps during the 1988 campaign (though he did occasionally refer to the Council on Foreign Relations, the New York-based think tank and a great bogeyman of American conspiracy theorists). Only in 1991 did he fully reveal his views, in a book titled The New World Order.
Robertson offers two very different scenarios for the New World Order, one financial, the other moral. In the first, he foresees a European seizure of American wealth via a world currency and a single global bank. The conspirator’s identity is Money Power; its motivation is a mixture of greed and a preference for the simplicity of dictatorship over the messiness of democracy. As early as 1865, European bankers arranged for Abraham Lincoln’s murder to prevent him from issuing interest-free currency, which would have broken their hold over the U.S. money supply. In 1912, to maintain that hold, the banking interests engineered a three-way race for the presidency, permitting Woodrow Wilson to win. A year later Wilson and his aide Colonel Edward House institutionalized the Money Power by getting the Sixteenth Amendment passed, permitting Congress to collect an income tax, and establishing the Federal Reserve Board. These two developments are closely connected, for the central bank relies on the income tax to advance an “international financial assault on the freedom and integrity of America.”
Robertson’s second and far uglier scenario concerns the Illuminati, the Freemasons, and extreme New Age religionists who aspire not to money but to undermine the Christian social order. To achieve this they seek “a one-world government, a one-world army, a one-world economy under an Anglo-Saxon financial oligarchy, and a world dictator served by a council of twelve faithful men.” This tyranny will attempt to “destroy the Christian faith” and “replace it with an occult-inspired world socialist dictatorship.” In another place, he foresees nothing less than a world under “the domination of Lucifer and his followers” in which spiritual forces will be set into motion “which no human being will be strong enough to contain.” Robertson offers Hitler’s attempts at world hegemony as the closest historical parallel to the “giant prison” of the New World Order.
Robertson is also strangely contradictory about the course of American history. Sometimes he implies that the country has been on the wrong track from the very start. Perhaps some founding fathers, he muses, had intended “to bring forth, not the nation that our founders and champions of liberty desired, but a totally different world order under a mystery religion.” In this context, the Masonic imagery on the Great Seal of the United States has great significance. Alternatively, he dates the rot to the time of Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902); since then American policy has moved steadily closer to the New World Order, regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge. He portrays some U.S. presidents, including Jimmy Carter and George Bush, as “men of goodwill,” but that did not prevent them from doing their part to bring on this wretched future. Robertson sees the Council on Foreign Relations (as well as the Trilateral Commission) as the New World Order’s main agent in the United States. The conspirators have not yet brought down the United States, but they did cause the Great Depression and several recessions; in addition, they “helped destroy” the Soviet bloc, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, and many countries in Southeast Asia and Africa.
Writing in 1991, Robertson finds that recent events point to “a giant plan” in which everything is “perfectly on cue.” Note the particulars: “Europe sets the date for its union. Communism collapses. A hugely popular war [against Iraq] is fought in the Middle East. The United Nations is rescued from scorn by an easily swayed public. A new world order is announced [by George Bush].” Looking ahead, Robertson sees a financial collapse that prompts the U.S. government to turn over its defense and its sovereignty to the United Nations. The U.N. then imposes socialist and anti-Christian rules. The leaders “elect a world president with plenary powers who is totally given to the religion of humanity.” The New World Order is in place.
Lyndon LaRouche. If Robertson regurgitates long-standing fears of secret societies, Lyndon LaRouche offers highly original formulations. His many references to ancient philosophers and world history give his theories a seemingly profound quality that in fact masks extreme incoherence. Indeed, so mixed up are his ideas that they almost defy characterization along the Left-Right spectrum; but he does run for office as a Democrat, he comes out of a radical leftist background, and many of his policies have a left-wing cast. Confusing matters further, LaRouche constantly redefines terms, so that a word has both its normal meaning and something like its opposite. Drug fighters become drug traffickers, Jews become Nazis, and so on. “LaRouche’s followers thus ended up with a topsy-turvy view in which the real Nazis were seen as anti-Nazis, and anti-Semitism was perceived as a moral necessity – to ‘save’ the Jews from themselves.” Conspiracism does not get much more convoluted than this.
A world conspiracy theory has served as the main platform for LaRouche’s many organizations, publications, and repeated presidential campaigns (starting in 1976). He argues that a single oligarchic conspiracy has been bedeviling mankind since the dawn of history. Its headquarters were first in Babylon, then in Rome, Venice, and now in London. The British aristocracy aspires to achieve world hegemony through conspiratorial means; the queen of England is the number 1 danger to humanity. In his view, the British gain power in large part by reducing the status of other populations through war, starvation, and contraception, and in part by drugging them with popular culture and hallucinogens. Once the British have achieved a “new Dark Ages” of unrestrained capitalism, London-based conspirators will reign supreme and will use their power to kill off large parts of the human race through nuclear weapons, AIDS, and other methods. To prevent this catastrophe, LaRouche advocates preparation for total war against Great Britain.
Alone, the British might not pose much of a threat; their strength lies in the many and varied allies and agents they employ, starting with Zionists and also including Orthodox Christians, Jesuits, Freemasons, the Rockefeller family, environmentalists, drug traffickers, and fundamentalist Muslims. Insisting that these many unrelated, even mutually hostile, elements are all working together takes LaRouche to spin bizarre hypotheses. Freemasons established the Jewish organization B’nai B’rith as a proslavery spy ring providing intelligence to the South before the Civil War. The Rothschilds assassinated Abraham Lincoln. British and German aristocrats financed the Bolsheviks, who were really nothing but the old Okhrana (tsarist secret police). The Anti-Defamation League imports drugs into the United States. A bomb in Saudi Arabia that killed nineteen American soldiers in their barracks is “a new flank” in Britain’s “war on the Clinton administration”.
LaRouche also personalizes these accusations, associating all his adversaries with the forces of darkness. The Rockefeller clan, the CIA, and their many agents are always poised to strike at him.
Ross Perot. Ross Perot, the candidate who won 19 percent of the presidential vote in 1992 and 8 percent in 1996, raised many conspiracy theories the first time he ran but learned to keep quiet about them the second. He met at least twice with the head of the Christic Institute, a fringe outfit claiming that a conspiratorial group (the “Secret Team”) runs the U.S. government even as it engages in drug trafficking and arms running. He associated with such conspiracy theorists as James “Bo” Gritz and Roy Cohn. He took seriously some woolly charges (dubbed the “October Surprise”) that George Bush in 1980 had gone to Europe to try to stop the release of American hostages in Tehran, and thereby to hurt Jimmy Carter’s electoral chances. Perot went so far as to dispatch a team to the Missouri state prison to investigate a jailbird’s claim about flying Bush home in a supersonic plane from a phantom meeting in Madrid with Iranians. Perot sees a conspiracy of neglect on the part of the U.S. government, and Bush specifically, toward captured American military men in Southeast Asia; officials shy away from this issue to hide their long-established and deeply corrupt relations with drug traffickers. Perot’s rage against these conspirators, an in-depth analysis concluded, was “at the heart, if not the very soul, of his bid for the presidency” in 1992.
Perot also has a streak of personal paranoia that especially colored his first campaign. He has frequently engaged private investigators to look into the backgrounds of employees and adversaries. Worried about attacks from his enemies among Vietnamese, Iranians, Black Panthers, drug traffickers, and their allies in the U.S. government, he routinely monitors the movements and friendships of his family members. His wife did not join him at a political rally in Florida, he announced, because “I love her too much to put her at risk.” He explained having pulled out of the presidential campaign in 1992 for six weeks due to political rivals’ engaging in “dirty tricks” to disrupt his daughter Carolyn’s wedding: “I had three reports that the Republican Party intended to publish a fake photograph of my daughter,” putting her head on another body. Of course, Perot also worries about himself. His Dallas mansion is surrounded by walls, cameras, movement sensors, alarms, and security guards; on occasion, armed with an automatic rifle, he roams the grounds. During the third debate of the 1992 presidential campaign, he announced that “the Vietnamese had sent people into Canada to make arrangement [sic] to have me and my family killed. The most significant effort they had one night is five people coming across my front yard.”
Besides these major aspirants to the presidency, several minor ones fit in the paranoid style. Fred Newman, a one-time acolyte of Lyndon LaRouche who heads the New Alliance party, a group with its own variant Marxist approach to life (“social therapy,” which blames all personal problems on racism and sexism), bears special note. Though antisemitic, the leadership (including Newman himself) is mostly Jewish. It forwards an elaborate and confusing conspiracy theory and has several times run Lenora Fulani as its candidate for president. In his 1996 presidential race, Perot joined forces with New Alliance, which also has a secret inner organization, the International Workers party.
Spiro Agnew is a special case; he did not run for the presidency but very nearly ascended to that position. Had he managed to hang on as vice president a few months longer, Agnew would have succeeded Richard Nixon in August 1974. Instead, he resigned in October 1973 because of evidence that came out about his corrupt practices when governor of Maryland. Looking back on this sequence of events, Agnew years later wrote in a private letter to Paul Findley, a prominent adversary of the Israel lobby: “I trace the advent of my difficulties to a confrontation with this same lobby.” It was not his taking kickbacks but his refusal to visit Israel, he claimed, that led to his ouster as vice president.
Much conspiracism in the United States is modish, reflecting a taste for puzzles and puzzlement. While polite society derides the rude notions of true believers, it also stylishly accepts some of their premises, as though adopting a declass pose proves one’s sophistication. Those who know better are lured by the very outlandishness and disrepute of conspiracy theories. The notion of clandestine elements’ aspiring to universal power intrigues at one level and horrifies at another; it is almost akin to the Halloween celebrations that American adults have so taken to in recent years. One analyst correctly sees this sort of thinking as a form of “distracting thrills” and discerns “habits of mind” that “positively revel in mystification.”
The modish conspiracy theory with the greatest allure remains the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. This most elaborated and widely believed – in conspiracy theory of recent American history stands as a monument to titillation. Yes, the event shocked Americans and left many incapable of coming to terms with its senselessness, and especially with the notion that so puny an individual as Lee Harvey Oswald could singlehandedly rupture the polity. “If you put the murdered President of the United States on one side of a scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn’t balance. You want to add something weightier to Oswald. . . . A conspiracy would, of course, do the job nicely.”
But disproportion and disbelief hardly account for the enormous and enduring popularity of conspiracy theories about the Kennedy killing, all of which share the common assumption that Oswald was a patsy who got framed. So successful have the Kennedy “assassinologists” been that, according to opinion polls, some two-thirds of Americans in 1963 suspected a conspiracy and 56 percent of the population still did so in 1991. Almost thirty years after the 1963 assassination, polls showed three-quarters of the American population believing Oswald was part of a conspiracy and an equal number suspecting an official cover-up of the case.
Another favorite topic of modish conspiracy theorists concerns a malign group’s taking over the government of the United States. Unlike the Right, which fears the Council on Foreign Relations or the Insiders, sophisticates play with imaginative notions about a clandestine takeover of the White House, the military, or (most commonly) the Central Intelligence Agency. These institutions get turned into conspiratorial outfits that exist within outwardly normal institutions. As the lead character in the movie Three Days of the Condor (1975) put it, “Maybe there’s another CIA inside the CIA.” In other versions, a secret group of CIA officials controls the American government and, through it, the rest of the world too.
Should a decent American citizen verge toward discovering the existence of the inner sanctum, he pays dearly. According to Joe Trento of the influential National Security News Service, a Washington-based organization, “You can’t be anybody in this town successfully in terms of official position without their approval. . . . if you do something they don’t like, you’re going to end up in trouble.” In one case concerning a top-secret military program, the conspirators supposedly bombard the wretch with disinformation about evil aliens and brain implants, eventually driving him crazy. Dozens of individuals connected to the Kennedy assassination are said to have died unnatural deaths.
A common theme concerns the U.S. government’s suppressing information about its own mischief. Prominent examples of cover-ups include the Kennedy asssassination, Vietnam-era soldiers missing in action, and a cure for cancer. Immediately after the Federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed in April 1995, the Right theorized about a first explosion’s having gone off just milliseconds before the truck bomb (i.e., it was an inside job). Similarly, when TWA flight 800 went down off New York City in July 1996, killing all 230 onboard, conspiracy theorists insisted that the cause was a missile sent up by the U.S. Navy. Perhaps the most colorful suspicions concern unidentified flying objects (UFOs) from space, and specifically the supposed crash of a UFO near Roswell, New Mexico, in July 1947. The air force is said to have conducted a high-level inquiry into the incident in the early 1950s, named Operation Majestic 12, which it then covered up. Some conspiracy theorists even see the aliens establishing a “Secret Government” in the United States and filling positions in the existing Federal government; indeed, the Trilateral Commission came into existence to negotiate with these outer-space beings because they had broken their promises.
The enduring popularity of such conspiracy theories makes them highly commercial. The estimated six million people each year who visit the site of the Kennedy assassination are a significant source of revenue to Dallas. Dealey Plaza itself has become “a conspiracy theme park, with self-anointed ‘researchers’ on hand every day peddling autopsy pictures.” Those wishing to experience the assassination more vividly can ride in an open Lincoln Continental convertible limousine from Love Field through Dealey Plaza, hear rifle sounds when they reach the spot where Kennedy was killed, then speed off to Parkland Memorial Hospital. Then they can visit a museum devoted to conspiracy theories about the assassination and featuring a 108-foot-long mural connecting it to many of the other famous deaths in recent American history. True devotees attend annual three-day conventions in Dallas, where seminars delve into details, and self-proclaimed witnesses sign their autographs.
Beyond Dallas, the Kennedy puzzle has become a mainstay of popular culture, acquiring an iconic quality. For those who want a piece of history, artifacts are for sale, but pricey. The gun Jack Ruby used to kill Oswald last sold for $200,000. Board games, t-shirts, and bumper stickers deal with the subject. Oliver Stone’s JFK, a conspiracy-saturated $50 million film about the president’s assassination, appeared in late 1991 and caused a huge surge in conspiracism. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and Warner Brothers distributed a “JFK Study Guide” for use in high school and college history courses. It then inspired a host of other productions on the same theme such as In the Line of Fire (1993), a thriller, and a November 1996 episode of The X-Files in which an army captain killed Kennedy on behalf of his military superiors. Two thousand books have been published on this subject in thirty years; in February 1992, no fewer than four books about the Kennedy assassination filled the American best-seller lists (listed under “nonfiction,” though that may be a misnomer). A growing number of CD-ROMs and Internet sites deal with the issue. (For a listing of World Wide Web resources on this and other topics, see appendix C.) Such signs of unabated fascination point to the murder’s becoming abstracted. It is hard to argue with Gerald Posner, the leading student of the Kennedy assassination, that “the JFK murder has, regrettably, become an entertainment business.” What began as an ugly reflection of the cold war ended as murder-mystery story and cult.
At a time when it takes fewer than 100,000 in sales to make the U.S. best-seller lists, books flogging conspiracy theories claim far greater sales. Over one million sold for Pat Robertson’s New World Order; two million copies in two months for Phyllis Schlafly’s Gravediggers; five million copies in print for None Dare Call It Conspiracy; six million copies of the similarlynamed None Dare Call It Treason in just eight months after publication in 1964, and then another million. (The author claims this represents “an all-time [American] record for the sale of so many books in so short a period.”)
More than a few novels dwell on the secret society tradition. Foucault’s Pendulum playfully presents several centuries of secret society conspiracism (“If the Plan exists, it must involve everything”). Thomas Pynchon’s works take place in a fantasy of conspiratorial networks. The Illuminatus! Trilogy is a three-volume science-fiction novel based on the Illuminati phobia by two former Playboy magazine editors, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. Relying on what the authors call “guerilla ontology,” the novel attempts to create doubts in the reader’s mind about the nature of reality. It tells of two competing conspiracies, between order and chaos, and includes virtually every known conspiracy theory plus a few the authors made up for good measure (for example, that Adam Weishaupt quietly murdered George Washington and then replaced him). Illuminatus! became a cult best-seller, spawning a board game and spurring Wilson on to mine the same rich vein by writing many more imaginative books about conspiracies.
Feature films on conspiratorial themes abound and do well commercially. In addition to the Kennedy theme, prominent examples include The Wilby Conspiracy (19xx), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), The President’s Analyst (1967), The Package (1989), Total Recall (1990), Point of No Return (1993), Shadow Conspiracy (1997), and The Conspiracy Theory (1997). Television series with a conspiratorial content include Dark Skies, The Fugitive, The Lazarus Man, Millennium, The Pretender, Profiler, Twin Peaks, and The X-Files. Some of these stories toy with petty conspiracies; Capricorn One (1978) exposes the first manned flight to Mars as a hoax filmed on a stage set (and may have the distinction of portraying black helicopters for the first time as the enemy of righteous Americans). But world conspiracy theories make a more tempting subject. “People are funny,” announces a character in the television series Nowhere Man. “They tend to fancy notions like democracy, freedom of speech, free elections. It’s an illusion, of course.” A computer game called Interstate ’76 simulates a conspiracy by the oil-exporting states to destroy energy supplies in the United States, and so cripple the country.
Reviewing the prodigious output of conspiracist materials from the vantage point of 1997, one analyst notes that what was once specific to politics has had a “domino effect” in the realm of culture. “In the last year or so, conspiracy thinking has been used as a narrative model by everyone from novelists to the makers of blockbuster movies.”
Consistent with this thrill-seeking approach, some American conspiracy theorists reach for anarchic hyperbole. To them, all the world is a staged reality. Though not a believer himself, Charles Paul Freund of the Washington Post captures this fear:
Let’s say that everything you know is not only wrong, it is a carefully wrought lie. Let’s say that your mind is filled with falsehoods – about yourself, about history, about the world around you – planted there by powerful forces so as to lull you into complacency. Your freedom is thus an illusion. You are in fact a pawn in a plot, and your role is that of a compliant dupe – if you’re lucky. If and when it serves the interests of others, your role will change: Your life will be disrupted, you could go penniless and hungry; you might have to die.
Nor is there anything you can do about this. Oh, if you happen to get a whiff of the truth you can try to warn people, to undermine the plotters by exposing them. But in fact you’re up against too much. They’re too powerful, too far-flung, too invisible, too clever. Like others before you, you will fail.
Unconstrained, conspiracism leads to doubts about everything, bringing life itself under suspicion. In this spirit, Jonathan Vankin writes that “civilization is a conspiracy against reality.” Oliver Stone, one of Hollywood’s most renowned movie producers, asks the conspiracy theorist’s ultimate questions: “Who owns reality? Who owns your mind?” His answers allow little room for debate: “I’ve come to have severe doubts about Columbus, about Washington, about the Civil War being fought over slavery, about World War I, about World War II and the supposed fight against Nazism and Japanese control of resources . . . I don’t even know if I was born or who my parents were.” Thus does thrill-seeking twist itself into absolute nihilism.
What is the importance of conspiracy theories and their potential to do damage? To reply requires an understanding of their background, for paranoid ideas current in the United States today are anything but new; nearly all their basic themes originated in other places and times. While a Farrakhan or Robertson may seem to respond to current issues and personalities, he is actually following an almost prewritten scenario, fitting his concerns into a text written decades or centuries earlier. Knowledge of the established literary traditions of conspiracism provides the context for the here and now and explains their likely consequences. Accordingly, this study focuses on the origins and evolution of conspiracy theories with a look over to Europe and back two and a half centuries.
Before taking up these historical subjects, however, we pause to consider the subject at hand and the peculiar challenges that it poses to research.
GALLUP NEWS SERVICE
PRINCETON, NJ – The vast majority of Americans believe the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, one of the most infamous events in American history, was a conspiracy. A Gallup poll from March of this year shows that over 8 in 10 Americans (81%) believe that other people were involved in a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy. Only 13% of the public believes that just one man (Lee Harvey Oswald) acted alone. These recent results match the high point of those believing in a conspiracy, a percentage that has increased since the 1960s.
Gallup first asked about a possible conspiracy shortly after the assassination in November of 1963, and at that time, 52% of the public thought others were involved in the assassination. A similar percentage (50%) believed in a conspiracy three years later in December 1966. When Gallup revisited the subject in 1976, the percentage believing others were involved had increased considerably. At that time, 81% thought others were involved in the killing of President Kennedy. It is likely that this large increase in belief in a conspiracy was related to the highly publicized findings of the 1976 HSCA (House Select Committee on Assassinations), which concluded that Kennedy was probably killed as a result of a conspiracy. The percentage believing in a conspiracy decreased slightly, by 7 percent, in 1983 (74%). Support of the conspiracy theory remained high in 1992 (77%), and 1993 (75%), following the release of the popular Oliver Stone film “JFK” in 1991, which presented a variety of assassination conspiracy theories.
Interestingly, those with more formal education tend to have the lowest belief in a possible conspiracy in the JFK assassination. Among those with a post-graduate education, 71% believe others were involved in the assassination, compared with 78% among those with some college education and 84% among those with a H.S. education or less.
Importance of the Assassination
The JFK assassination does stand out as a hallmark event of the previous century, according to the American public. A Gallup poll in 1999 asked Americans about the importance of a variety of events that occurred during the century. The results of that question place the assassination 8th on the list of important events in the 20th century, behind events surrounding both World Wars, women getting the right to vote, and the passing of the Civil Rights Act. Importance of the Kennedy assassination was nearly identical to that assigned to landing a man on the moon in 1969, and ranked ahead of items like the Vietnam War, the breakup of the Soviet Union, economic depression of the 1930s, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The results below are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,024 adults, 18 years and older, conducted March 26-28, 2001. For results based on these samples, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
Do you think that one man was responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy, or do you think that others were involved in a conspiracy?
|2001 Mar 26-28||
|1993 Nov 15-16||
|1992 Feb ^||
|1983 Oct ^||
|1976 Dec †||
|1966 Dec †||
|1963 Nov †||
|^||Wording included “one man, Lee Harvey Oswald,…”|
|†||Slight variations in wording:
1963 – “Do you think that the man who shot President Kennedy acted on his own, or was some group or element also responsible?”
1966 – “Do you think that one man was responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy, or do you think others were involved?”
1976 – “Do you think that one man was responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy, or do you think others were involved?”
Test tube hamburgers to be served this year
The world’s first test tube hamburger will be served up this October after scientists perfected the art of growing beef in the lab.
The process of culturing the artificial meat in the lab is so laborious that the finished product, expected to arrive in eight months’ time, will cost about £220,000 (EUR250,000).
But researchers expect that after producing their first patty they will be able to scale up the process to create affordable artificial meat products.
Mass-producing beef, pork, chicken and lamb in the lab could satisfy the growing global demand for meat – forecast to double within the next 40 years – and dramatically reduce the harm that farming does to the environment.
Last autumn the Telegraph reported that Prof Mark Post of Maastricht University in the Netherlands had grown small strips of muscle tissue from a pig’s stem cells, using a serum taken from a horse foetus.
Speaking at the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Vancouver yesterday afternoon (SUNDAY), Prof Post said his team has successfully replicated the process with cow cells and calf serum, bringing the first artificial burger a step closer.
He said: “In October we are going to provide a proof of concept showing out of stem cells we can make a product that looks, feels and hopefully tastes like meat.”
Although it is possible to extract a limited number of stem cells from cows without killing them, Prof Post said the most efficient way of taking the process forward would still involve slaughter.
He said: “Eventually my vision is that you have a limited herd of donor animals in the world that you keep in stock and that you get your cells form there.”
Each animal would be able to produce about a million times more meat through the lab-based technique than through the traditional method of butchery, he added.
Making a complete burger will require 3,000 strips of muscle tissue, each of which measures about 3cm long by 1.5cm wide, with a thickness of half a millimetre and takes six weeks to produce.
The meat will then be ground up with 200 strips of fat tissue, produced in the same way, to make a hamburger.
To produce the meat, stem cells are placed in a broth containing vital nutrients and serum from a cow foetus which allow them to grow into muscle cells and multiply up to 30 times.
The strips of meat begin contracting like real muscle cells, and are attached to velcro and stretched to boost this process and keep them supple.
At the moment the method produces meat with realistic fibres and a pinkish-yellow tinge, but Prof Post expects to produce more authentically coloured strips in the near future.
He forecast that, with the right funding and regulatory approval, his method could be scaled up to industrial proportions within as little as ten years.
But creating different cuts, such as steaks, would be more problematic because to grow thicker strips of meat would require an artificial blood supply, he added. The work is being financed by anonymous and extremely wealthy benefactor who Prof Post claims is a household name with a reputation for “turning everything into gold”.
Prof Post plans to ask Heston Blumenthal to cook the meat, and the anonymous financer will decide who to invite to eat it.
The only person to have tried the lab-grown meat so far is a Russian journalist who snatched a sample of pork during a visit to Prof Post’s lab at Maastricht University last year and declared himself unimpressed.
The maker of organic toddler formula with brown rice syrup probably “has the best of intentions. They’re trying to produce a … formula people want to buy.” Sighhhh
Organic Brown Rice Syrup: Hidden Arsenic Source
If you’re shopping organic and see brown rice syrup listed first among ingredients, you may want to think twice: That product could have high levels of potentially toxic arsenic, Dartmouth researchers reported today.
A team led by environmental chemist Brian P. Jackson found what Jackson called dangerous amounts of arsenic in organic powdered baby formula, intended for toddlers, whose top ingredient was brown rice syrup. That formula contained six times more arsenic than the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for the water supply.
Jackson and his colleagues also reported elevated arsenic levels in some brown rice-sweetened cereal bars, energy bars and energy “shots”consumed by endurance athletes, according to a study published today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.The results, which do not identify any products by name, follow recent reports about trace levels of arsenic in apple juice and previous reports of arsenic in rice.
ABC News conducted an online search for baby formula with organic brown rice syrup as the primary ingredient and found two products, Baby’s Only Organic Dairy Toddler Formula and Baby’s Only Organic Soy Toddler Formula, both made by Nature‘s One.
In a prepared response, Nature’s One said its California-based supplier of the syrup “uses qualified, world-renowned, third-party, independent lab to test arsenic levels in their organic brown rice syrup. Their testing results report undetectable amounts of arsenic at laboratory testing limits.”
“As an organic manufacturer, Nature’s One’s primary concern is the amount of environmental chemicals ingested by infants, toddlers and children. Parents can rest assured that Nature’s One® will test arsenic levels for every lot of organic brown rice syrup and organic rice oligodextrin prior to production,” the statement said. Rice oligodextrin is another type of sugar also used in some baby products.
Given that organic brown rice syrup “may introduce significant concentrations of arsenic to an individual’s diet,” the researchers saw “an urgent need for regulatory limits on arsenic in food.” Dietary sources of arsenic represent “potentially a big public health issue that has not been taken on board,” Jackson told ABCNews.com.
The Food and Drug Administration has been sampling and testing a variety of “more conventional” rice products, including rice crackers and rice cereals, “to evaluate what the risk is and what the levels are in these products” said Siobhan DeLancey, a spokeswoman for the agency’sCenter for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Depending on what the testing reveals, she said there was “a possibility” that the agency would set a threshold for arsenic levels in rice. The FDA previously set a “level of concern” of 23 parts per billion of arsenic for fruit juices, the only other food to have such a designated level. The EPA standard for arsenic in drinking water is 10 ppb.
“The bottom line is this shows there’s a need for FDA to figure out some limits on this and put that out there,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C. She said FDA needs to take a broader approach toward arsenic in what we eat, rather than going “food by food.”
“There’s been quite a lot of press on arsenic in rice in the past six years, but less so on the rice products,” Jackson told ABCNews.com. As Americans consume more rice-containing foods, they’re unknowingly ingesting more arsenic, he cautioned. He pointed out that they’re buying more organic packaged foods, more gluten-free products made from rice instead of wheat flour, and choosing foods sweetened with organic brown rice syrup because of the buzz they’ve heard linking high-fructose corn syrup and obesity.
But they’re frequently unaware that many of these foods contain rice. “Even if you were an educated consumer, some products might just creep under the radar,” Jackson said in an interview Wednesday.
The maker of organic toddler formula with brown rice syrup probably “has the best of intentions. They’re trying to produce a … formula people want to buy,” Jackson said.
Jackson said he originally was studying arsenic levels in major brands of baby formulas, but even those made with rice starch were low. However, two organic formulas, intended for toddlers, (one milk-based, the other soy-based) made with brown rice syrup had 20 to 30 times more arsenic than the other formulas.
Baby Formula Findings Extended to Rice Syrup-Sweetened Foods
That sparked his interest in broader testing of packaged organic foods with and without brown rice syrup, purchased from local supermarket aisles in Hanover, N.H. The researchers tested infant formulas, cereal bars, energy bars and energy “shots,” which are gels consumed by endurance athletes.
Arsenic occurs in several forms, some thought to be more dangerous than others. Organic forms of arsenic can be found naturally in the soil, along with arsenic-based pesticides used before the EPA banned them in 2009. Rice, Jackson noted, “takes up more arsenic than all the other grains.”
Inorganic arsenic is considered much more toxic than organic arsenic, Jackson said. Brown rice is usually higher in total arsenic and inorganic arsenic than white rice because the outer layer that’s removed in white rice contains the inorganic arsenic. However, another form of arsenic can be found inside the grain of both white and brown rice.
The EPA drinking water standard is 10 parts per billion for total arsenic, which combines inorganic and organic arsenic. Jackson’s team tested one package of soy-based toddler formula made with organic brown rice syrup and found a total arsenic level of 60 ppb, including about 25 ppb of inorganic arsenic.
That kind of level is dangerous, given babies’ small size and developing bodies, they said. Given the variety of formula brands available, he said, “I would choose one that wasn’t based on organic brown rice syrup.”
They also detected arsenic levels ranging from 23 to 128 ppb in cereal bars made with brown rice syrup; and levels of 84 to 171 ppb in three flavors of energy shots.
“I don’t necessarily think eating a cereal bar every couple of days is a health risk,” said Jackson, who collaborated on the study with researchers at Dartmouth’s Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Center, which is funded by the EPA and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “But we don’t have any guidelines for maximum allowable amounts in food or the cumulative amount of arsenic intake during the day.”
“There’s no perfect advice,” Lovera said. “There’s no one thing people can do.” But she said, the surprising presence of arsenic in packaged foods give people a chance to ask themselves, “How many foods do I need to eat that are processed with ingredients I don’t really know that much about?”
By CHARLES DUHIGG
Published: February 16, 2012
Andrew Pole had just started working as a statistician for Target in 2002, when two colleagues from the marketing department stopped by his desk to ask an odd question: “If we wanted to figure out if a customer is pregnant, even if she didn’t want us to know, can you do that? ”
Pole has a master’s degree in statistics and another in economics, and has been obsessed with the intersection of data and human behavior most of his life. His parents were teachers in North Dakota, and while other kids were going to 4-H, Pole was doing algebra and writing computer programs. “The stereotype of a math nerd is true,” he told me when I spoke with him last year. “I kind of like going out and evangelizing analytics.”
As the marketers explained to Pole — and as Pole later explained to me, back when we were still speaking and before Target told him to stop — new parents are a retailer’s holy grail. Most shoppers don’t buy everything they need at one store. Instead, they buy groceries at the grocery store and toys at the toy store, and they visit Target only when they need certain items they associate with Target — cleaning supplies, say, or new socks or a six-month supply of toilet paper. But Target sells everything from milk to stuffed animals to lawn furniture to electronics, so one of the company’s primary goals is convincing customers that the only store they need is Target. But it’s a tough message to get across, even with the most ingenious ad campaigns, because once consumers’ shopping habits are ingrained, it’s incredibly difficult to change them.
There are, however, some brief periods in a person’s life when old routines fall apart and buying habits are suddenly in flux. One of those moments — the moment, really — is right around the birth of a child, when parents are exhausted and overwhelmed and their shopping patterns and brand loyalties are up for grabs. But as Target’s marketers explained to Pole, timing is everything. Because birth records are usually public, the moment a couple have a new baby, they are almost instantaneously barraged with offers and incentives and advertisements from all sorts of companies. Which means that the key is to reach them earlier, before any other retailers know a baby is on the way. Specifically, the marketers said they wanted to send specially designed ads to women in their second trimester, which is when most expectant mothers begin buying all sorts of new things, like prenatal vitamins and maternity clothing. “Can you give us a list?” the marketers asked.
“We knew that if we could identify them in their second trimester, there’s a good chance we could capture them for years,” Pole told me. “As soon as we get them buying diapers from us, they’re going to start buying everything else too. If you’re rushing through the store, looking for bottles, and you pass orange juice, you’ll grab a carton. Oh, and there’s that new DVD I want. Soon, you’ll be buying cereal and paper towels from us, and keep coming back.”
The desire to collect information on customers is not new for Target or any other large retailer, of course. For decades, Target has collected vast amounts of data on every person who regularly walks into one of its stores. Whenever possible, Target assigns each shopper a unique code — known internally as the Guest ID number — that keeps tabs on everything they buy. “If you use a credit card or a coupon, or ﬁll out a survey, or mail in a refund, or call the customer help line, or open an e-mail we’ve sent you or visit our Web site, we’ll record it and link it to your Guest ID,” Pole said. “We want to know everything we can.”
Also linked to your Guest ID is demographic information like your age, whether you are married and have kids, which part of town you live in, how long it takes you to drive to the store, your estimated salary, whether you’ve moved recently, what credit cards you carry in your wallet and what Web sites you visit. Target can buy data about your ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you’ve ever declared bankruptcy or got divorced, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal or applesauce, your political leanings, reading habits, charitable giving and the number of cars you own. (In a statement, Target declined to identify what demographic information it collects or purchases.) All that information is meaningless, however, without someone to analyze and make sense of it. That’s where Andrew Pole and the dozens of other members of Target’s Guest Marketing Analytics department come in.
Almost every major retailer, from grocery chains to investment banks to the U.S. Postal Service, has a “predictive analytics” department devoted to understanding not just consumers’ shopping habits but also their personal habits, so as to more efficiently market to them. “But Target has always been one of the smartest at this,” says Eric Siegel, a consultant and the chairman of a conference called Predictive Analytics World. “We’re living through a golden age of behavioral research. It’s amazing how much we can figure out about how people think now.”
The reason Target can snoop on our shopping habits is that, over the past two decades, the science of habit formation has become a major field of research in neurology and psychology departments at hundreds of major medical centers and universities, as well as inside extremely well financed corporate labs. “It’s like an arms race to hire statisticians nowadays,” said Andreas Weigend, the former chief scientist at Amazon.com. “Mathematicians are suddenly sexy.” As the ability to analyze data has grown more and more fine-grained, the push to understand how daily habits influence our decisions has become one of the most exciting topics in clinical research, even though most of us are hardly aware those patterns exist. One study from Duke University estimated that habits, rather than conscious decision-making, shape 45 percent of the choices we make every day, and recent discoveries have begun to change everything from the way we think about dieting to how doctors conceive treatments for anxiety, depression and addictions.
This research is also transforming our understanding of how habits function across organizations and societies. A football coach named Tony Dungy propelled one of the worst teams in the N.F.L. to the Super Bowl by focusing on how his players habitually reacted to on-field cues. Before he became Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill overhauled a stumbling conglomerate, Alcoa, and turned it into a top performer in the Dow Jones by relentlessly attacking one habit — a specific approach to worker safety — which in turn caused a companywide transformation. The Obama campaign has hired a habit specialist as its “chief scientist” to figure out how to trigger new voting patterns among different constituencies.
Researchers have figured out how to stop people from habitually overeating and biting their nails. They can explain why some of us automatically go for a jog every morning and are more productive at work, while others oversleep and procrastinate. There is a calculus, it turns out, for mastering our subconscious urges. For companies like Target, the exhaustive rendering of our conscious and unconscious patterns into data sets and algorithms has revolutionized what they know about us and, therefore, how precisely they can sell.
Inside the brain-and-cognitive-sciences department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are what, to the casual observer, look like dollhouse versions of surgical theaters. There are rooms with tiny scalpels, small drills and miniature saws. Even the operating tables are petite, as if prepared for 7-year-old surgeons. Inside those shrunken O.R.’s, neurologists cut into the skulls of anesthetized rats, implanting tiny sensors that record the smallest changes in the activity of their brains.
An M.I.T. neuroscientist named Ann Graybiel told me that she and her colleagues began exploring habits more than a decade ago by putting their wired rats into a T-shaped maze with chocolate at one end. The maze was structured so that each animal was positioned behind a barrier that opened after a loud click. The first time a rat was placed in the maze, it would usually wander slowly up and down the center aisle after the barrier slid away, snifﬁng in corners and scratching at walls. It appeared to smell the chocolate but couldn’t ﬁgure out how to ﬁnd it. There was no discernible pattern in the rat’s meanderings and no indication it was working hard to find the treat.
The probes in the rats’ heads, however, told a different story. While each animal wandered through the maze, its brain was working furiously. Every time a rat sniffed the air or scratched a wall, the neurosensors inside the animal’s head exploded with activity. As the scientists repeated the experiment, again and again, the rats eventually stopped snifﬁng corners and making wrong turns and began to zip through the maze with more and more speed. And within their brains, something unexpected occurred: as each rat learned how to complete the maze more quickly, its mental activity decreased. As the path became more and more automatic — as it became a habit — the rats started thinking less and less.
This process, in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine, is called “chunking.” There are dozens, if not hundreds, of behavioral chunks we rely on every day. Some are simple: you automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush before sticking it in your mouth. Some, like making the kids’ lunch, are a little more complex. Still others are so complicated that it’s remarkable to realize that a habit could have emerged at all.
Take backing your car out of the driveway. When you ﬁrst learned to drive, that act required a major dose of concentration, and for good reason: it involves peering into the rearview and side mirrors and checking for obstacles, putting your foot on the brake, moving the gearshift into reverse, removing your foot from the brake, estimating the distance between the garage and the street while keeping the wheels aligned, calculating how images in the mirrors translate into actual distances, all while applying differing amounts of pressure to the gas pedal and brake.
Now, you perform that series of actions every time you pull into the street without thinking very much. Your brain has chunked large parts of it. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any repeated behavior into a habit, because habits allow our minds to conserve effort. But conserving mental energy is tricky, because if our brains power down at the wrong moment, we might fail to notice something important, like a child riding her bike down the sidewalk or a speeding car coming down the street. So we’ve devised a clever system to determine when to let a habit take over. It’s something that happens whenever a chunk of behavior starts or ends — and it helps to explain why habits are so difficult to change once they’re formed, despite our best intentions.
To understand this a little more clearly, consider again the chocolate-seeking rats. What Graybiel and her colleagues found was that, as the ability to navigate the maze became habitual, there were two spikes in the rats’ brain activity — once at the beginning of the maze, when the rat heard the click right before the barrier slid away, and once at the end, when the rat found the chocolate. Those spikes show when the rats’ brains were fully engaged, and the dip in neural activity between the spikes showed when the habit took over. From behind the partition, the rat wasn’t sure what waited on the other side, until it heard the click, which it had come to associate with the maze. Once it heard that sound, it knew to use the “maze habit,” and its brain activity decreased. Then at the end of the routine, when the reward appeared, the brain shook itself awake again and the chocolate signaled to the rat that this particular habit was worth remembering, and the neurological pathway was carved that much deeper.
The process within our brains that creates habits is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain ﬁgure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges. What’s unique about cues and rewards, however, is how subtle they can be. Neurological studies like the ones in Graybiel’s lab have revealed that some cues span just milliseconds. And rewards can range from the obvious (like the sugar rush that a morning doughnut habit provides) to the infinitesimal (like the barely noticeable — but measurable — sense of relief the brain experiences after successfully navigating the driveway). Most cues and rewards, in fact, happen so quickly and are so slight that we are hardly aware of them at all. But our neural systems notice and use them to build automatic behaviors.
Habits aren’t destiny — they can be ignored, changed or replaced. But it’s also true that once the loop is established and a habit emerges, your brain stops fully participating in decision-making. So unless you deliberately ﬁght a habit — unless you ﬁnd new cues and rewards — the old pattern will unfold automatically.
“We’ve done experiments where we trained rats to run down a maze until it was a habit, and then we extinguished the habit by changing the placement of the reward,” Graybiel told me. “Then one day, we’ll put the reward in the old place and put in the rat and, by golly, the old habit will re-emerge right away. Habits never really disappear.”
Luckily, simply understanding how habits work makes them easier to control. Take, for instance, a series of studies conducted a few years ago at Columbia University and the University of Alberta. Researchers wanted to understand how exercise habits emerge. In one project, 256 members of a health-insurance plan were invited to classes stressing the importance of exercise. Half the participants received an extra lesson on the theories of habit formation (the structure of the habit loop) and were asked to identify cues and rewards that might help them develop exercise routines.
The results were dramatic. Over the next four months, those participants who deliberately identified cues and rewards spent twice as much time exercising as their peers. Other studies have yielded similar results. According to another recent paper, if you want to start running in the morning, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (like always putting on your sneakers before breakfast or leaving your running clothes next to your bed) and a clear reward (like a midday treat or even the sense of accomplishment that comes from ritually recording your miles in a log book). After a while, your brain will start anticipating that reward — craving the treat or the feeling of accomplishment — and there will be a measurable neurological impulse to lace up your jogging shoes each morning.
Our relationship to e-mail operates on the same principle. When a computer chimes or a smartphone vibrates with a new message, the brain starts anticipating the neurological “pleasure” (even if we don’t recognize it as such) that clicking on the e-mail and reading it provides. That expectation, if unsatisfied, can build until you find yourself moved to distraction by the thought of an e-mail sitting there unread — even if you know, rationally, it’s most likely not important. On the other hand, once you remove the cue by disabling the buzzing of your phone or the chiming of your computer, the craving is never triggered, and you’ll find, over time, that you’re able to work productively for long stretches without checking your in-box.
Some of the most ambitious habit experiments have been conducted by corporate America. To understand why executives are so entranced by this science, consider how one of the world’s largest companies, Procter & Gamble, used habit insights to turn a failing product into one of its biggest sellers. P.& G. is the corporate behemoth behind a whole range of products, from Downy fabric softener to Bounty paper towels to Duracell batteries and dozens of other household brands. In the mid-1990s, P.& G.’s executives began a secret project to create a new product that could eradicate bad smells. P.& G. spent millions developing a colorless, cheap-to-manufacture liquid that could be sprayed on a smoky blouse, stinky couch, old jacket or stained car interior and make it odorless. In order to market the product — Febreze — the company formed a team that included a former Wall Street mathematician named Drake Stimson and habit specialists, whose job was to make sure the television commercials, which they tested in Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Boise, Idaho, accentuated the product’s cues and rewards just right.
The first ad showed a woman complaining about the smoking section of a restaurant. Whenever she eats there, she says, her jacket smells like smoke. A friend tells her that if she uses Febreze, it will eliminate the odor. The cue in the ad is clear: the harsh smell of cigarette smoke. The reward: odor eliminated from clothes. The second ad featured a woman worrying about her dog, Sophie, who always sits on the couch. “Sophie will always smell like Sophie,” she says, but with Febreze, “now my furniture doesn’t have to.” The ads were put in heavy rotation. Then the marketers sat back, anticipating how they would spend their bonuses. A week passed. Then two. A month. Two months. Sales started small and got smaller. Febreze was a dud.
The panicked marketing team canvassed consumers and conducted in-depth interviews to figure out what was going wrong, Stimson recalled. Their first inkling came when they visited a woman’s home outside Phoenix. The house was clean and organized. She was something of a neat freak, the woman explained. But when P.& G.’s scientists walked into her living room, where her nine cats spent most of their time, the scent was so overpowering that one of them gagged.
According to Stimson, who led the Febreze team, a researcher asked the woman, “What do you do about the cat smell?”
“It’s usually not a problem,” she said.
“Do you smell it now?”
“No,” she said. “Isn’t it wonderful? They hardly smell at all!”
A similar scene played out in dozens of other smelly homes. The reason Febreze wasn’t selling, the marketers realized, was that people couldn’t detect most of the bad smells in their lives. If you live with nine cats, you become desensitized to their scents. If you smokecigarettes, eventually you don’t smell smoke anymore. Even the strongest odors fade with constant exposure. That’s why Febreze was a failure. The product’s cue — the bad smells that were supposed to trigger daily use — was hidden from the people who needed it the most. And Febreze’s reward (an odorless home) was meaningless to someone who couldn’t smell offensive scents in the first place.
P.& G. employed a Harvard Business School professor to analyze Febreze’s ad campaigns. They collected hours of footage of people cleaning their homes and watched tape after tape, looking for clues that might help them connect Febreze to people’s daily habits. When that didn’t reveal anything, they went into the field and conducted more interviews. A breakthrough came when they visited a woman in a suburb near Scottsdale, Ariz., who was in her 40s with four children. Her house was clean, though not compulsively tidy, and didn’t appear to have any odor problems; there were no pets or smokers. To the surprise of everyone, she loved Febreze.
“I use it every day,” she said.
“What smells are you trying to get rid of?” a researcher asked.
“I don’t really use it for specific smells,” the woman said. “I use it for normal cleaning — a couple of sprays when I’m done in a room.”
The researchers followed her around as she tidied the house. In the bedroom, she made her bed, tightened the sheet’s corners, then sprayed the comforter with Febreze. In the living room, she vacuumed, picked up the children’s shoes, straightened the coffee table, then sprayed Febreze on the freshly cleaned carpet.
“It’s nice, you know?” she said. “Spraying feels like a little minicelebration when I’m done with a room.” At the rate she was going, the team estimated, she would empty a bottle of Febreze every two weeks.
When they got back to P.& G.’s headquarters, the researchers watched their videotapes again. Now they knew what to look for and saw their mistake in scene after scene. Cleaning has its own habit loops that already exist. In one video, when a woman walked into a dirty room (cue), she started sweeping and picking up toys (routine), then she examined the room and smiled when she was done (reward). In another, a woman scowled at her unmade bed (cue), proceeded to straighten the blankets and comforter (routine) and then sighed as she ran her hands over the freshly plumped pillows (reward). P.& G. had been trying to create a whole new habit with Febreze, but what they really needed to do was piggyback on habit loops that were already in place. The marketers needed to position Febreze as something that came at the end of the cleaning ritual, the reward, rather than as a whole new cleaning routine.
The company printed new ads showing open windows and gusts of fresh air. More perfume was added to the Febreze formula, so that instead of merely neutralizing odors, the spray had its own distinct scent. Television commercials were filmed of women, having finished their cleaning routine, using Febreze to spritz freshly made beds and just-laundered clothing. Each ad was designed to appeal to the habit loop: when you see a freshly cleaned room (cue), pull out Febreze (routine) and enjoy a smell that says you’ve done a great job (reward). When you finish making a bed (cue), spritz Febreze (routine) and breathe a sweet, contented sigh (reward). Febreze, the ads implied, was a pleasant treat, not a reminder that your home stinks.
And so Febreze, a product originally conceived as a revolutionary way to destroy odors, became an air freshener used once things are already clean. The Febreze revamp occurred in the summer of 1998. Within two months, sales doubled. A year later, the product brought in $230 million. Since then Febreze has spawned dozens of spinoffs — air fresheners, candles and laundry detergents — that now account for sales of more than $1 billion a year. Eventually, P.& G. began mentioning to customers that, in addition to smelling sweet, Febreze can actually kill bad odors. Today it’s one of the top-selling products in the world.
Andrew Pole was hired by Target to use the same kinds of insights into consumers’ habits to expand Target’s sales. His assignment was to analyze all the cue-routine-reward loops among shoppers and help the company figure out how to exploit them. Much of his department’s work was straightforward: find the customers who have children and send them catalogs that feature toys before Christmas. Look for shoppers who habitually purchase swimsuits in April and send them coupons for sunscreen in July and diet books in December. But Pole’s most important assignment was to identify those unique moments in consumers’ lives when their shopping habits become particularly flexible and the right advertisement or coupon would cause them to begin spending in new ways.
In the 1980s, a team of researchers led by a U.C.L.A. professor named Alan Andreasen undertook a study of peoples’ most mundane purchases, like soap, toothpaste, trash bags and toilet paper. They learned that most shoppers paid almost no attention to how they bought these products, that the purchases occurred habitually, without any complex decision-making. Which meant it was hard for marketers, despite their displays and coupons and product promotions, to persuade shoppers to change.
But when some customers were going through a major life event, like graduating from college or getting a new job or moving to a new town, their shopping habits became flexible in ways that were both predictable and potential gold mines for retailers. The study found that when someone marries, he or she is more likely to start buying a new type of coffee. When a couple move into a new house, they’re more apt to purchase a different kind of cereal. When they divorce, there’s an increased chance they’ll start buying different brands of beer.
Consumers going through major life events often don’t notice, or care, that their shopping habits have shifted, but retailers notice, and they care quite a bit. At those unique moments, Andreasen wrote, customers are “vulnerable to intervention by marketers.” In other words, a precisely timed advertisement, sent to a recent divorcee or new homebuyer, can change someone’s shopping patterns for years.
And among life events, none are more important than the arrival of a baby. At that moment, new parents’ habits are more flexible than at almost any other time in their adult lives. If companies can identify pregnant shoppers, they can earn millions.
The only problem is that identifying pregnant customers is harder than it sounds. Target has a baby-shower registry, and Pole started there, observing how shopping habits changed as a woman approached her due date, which women on the registry had willingly disclosed. He ran test after test, analyzing the data, and before long some useful patterns emerged. Lotions, for example. Lots of people buy lotion, but one of Pole’s colleagues noticed that women on the baby registry were buying larger quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester. Another analyst noted that sometime in the first 20 weeks, pregnant women loaded up on supplements like calcium, magnesium and zinc. Many shoppers purchase soap and cotton balls, but when someone suddenly starts buying lots of scent-free soap and extra-big bags of cotton balls, in addition to hand sanitizers and washcloths, it signals they could be getting close to their delivery date.
As Pole’s computers crawled through the data, he was able to identify about 25 products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to assign each shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score. More important, he could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.
One Target employee I spoke to provided a hypothetical example. Take a fictional Target shopper named Jenny Ward, who is 23, lives in Atlanta and in March bought cocoa-butter lotion, a purse large enough to double as a diaper bag, zinc and magnesium supplements and a bright blue rug. There’s, say, an 87 percent chance that she’s pregnant and that her delivery date is sometime in late August. What’s more, because of the data attached to her Guest ID number, Target knows how to trigger Jenny’s habits. They know that if she receives a coupon via e-mail, it will most likely cue her to buy online. They know that if she receives an ad in the mail on Friday, she frequently uses it on a weekend trip to the store. And they know that if they reward her with a printed receipt that entitles her to a free cup of Starbucks coffee, she’ll use it when she comes back again.
In the past, that knowledge had limited value. After all, Jenny purchased only cleaning supplies at Target, and there were only so many psychological buttons the company could push. But now that she is pregnant, everything is up for grabs. In addition to triggering Jenny’s habits to buy more cleaning products, they can also start including offers for an array of products, some more obvious than others, that a woman at her stage of pregnancy might need.
Pole applied his program to every regular female shopper in Target’s national database and soon had a list of tens of thousands of women who were most likely pregnant. If they could entice those women or their husbands to visit Target and buy baby-related products, the company’s cue-routine-reward calculators could kick in and start pushing them to buy groceries, bathing suits, toys and clothing, as well. When Pole shared his list with the marketers, he said, they were ecstatic. Soon, Pole was getting invited to meetings above his paygrade. Eventually his paygrade went up.
At which point someone asked an important question: How are women going to react when they figure out how much Target knows?
“If we send someone a catalog and say, ‘Congratulations on your first child!’ and they’ve never told us they’re pregnant, that’s going to make some people uncomfortable,” Pole told me. “We are very conservative about compliance with all privacy laws. But even if you’re following the law, you can do things where people get queasy.”
About a year after Pole created his pregnancy-prediction model, a man walked into a Target outside Minneapolis and demanded to see the manager. He was clutching coupons that had been sent to his daughter, and he was angry, according to an employee who participated in the conversation.
“My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”
The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again.
On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.”
When I approached Target to discuss Pole’s work, its representatives declined to speak with me. “Our mission is to make Target the preferred shopping destination for our guests by delivering outstanding value, continuous innovation and exceptional guest experience,” the company wrote in a statement. “We’ve developed a number of research tools that allow us to gain insights into trends and preferences within different demographic segments of our guest population.” When I sent Target a complete summary of my reporting, the reply was more terse: “Almost all of your statements contain inaccurate information and publishing them would be misleading to the public. We do not intend to address each statement point by point.” The company declined to identify what was inaccurate. They did add, however, that Target “is in compliance with all federal and state laws, including those related to protected health information.”
When I offered to fly to Target’s headquarters to discuss its concerns, a spokeswoman e-mailed that no one would meet me. When I flew out anyway, I was told I was on a list of prohibited visitors. “I’ve been instructed not to give you access and to ask you to leave,” said a very nice security guard named Alex.
Using data to predict a woman’s pregnancy, Target realized soon after Pole perfected his model, could be a public-relations disaster. So the question became: how could they get their advertisements into expectant mothers’ hands without making it appear they were spying on them? How do you take advantage of someone’s habits without letting them know you’re studying their lives?
Before I met Andrew Pole, before I even decided to write a book about the science of habit formation, I had another goal: I wanted to lose weight.
I had got into a bad habit of going to the cafeteria every afternoon and eating a chocolate-chip cookie, which contributed to my gaining a few pounds. Eight, to be precise. I put a Post-it note on my computer reading “NO MORE COOKIES.” But every afternoon, I managed to ignore that note, wander to the cafeteria, buy a cookie and eat it while chatting with colleagues. Tomorrow, I always promised myself, I’ll muster the willpower to resist.
Tomorrow, I ate another cookie.
When I started interviewing experts in habit formation, I concluded each interview by asking what I should do. The first step, they said, was to figure out my habit loop. The routine was simple: every afternoon, I walked to the cafeteria, bought a cookie and ate it while chatting with friends.
Next came some less obvious questions: What was the cue? Hunger? Boredom? Low blood sugar? And what was the reward? The taste of the cookie itself? The temporary distraction from my work? The chance to socialize with colleagues?
Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings, but we’re often not conscious of the urges driving our habits in the first place. So one day, when I felt a cookie impulse, I went outside and took a walk instead. The next day, I went to the cafeteria and bought a coffee. The next, I bought an apple and ate it while chatting with friends. You get the idea. I wanted to test different theories regarding what reward I was really craving. Was it hunger? (In which case the apple should have worked.) Was it the desire for a quick burst of energy? (If so, the coffee should suffice.) Or, as turned out to be the answer, was it that after several hours spent focused on work, I wanted to socialize, to make sure I was up to speed on office gossip, and the cookie was just a convenient excuse? When I walked to a colleague’s desk and chatted for a few minutes, it turned out, my cookie urge was gone.
All that was left was identifying the cue.
Deciphering cues is hard, however. Our lives often contain too much information to figure out what is triggering a particular behavior. Do you eat breakfast at a certain time because you’re hungry? Or because the morning news is on? Or because your kids have started eating? Experiments have shown that most cues fit into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people or the immediately preceding action. So to figure out the cue for my cookie habit, I wrote down five things the moment the urge hit:
Where are you? (Sitting at my desk.)
What time is it? (3:36 p.m.)
What’s your emotional state? (Bored.)
Who else is around? (No one.)
What action preceded the urge? (Answered an e-mail.)
The next day I did the same thing. And the next. Pretty soon, the cue was clear: I always felt an urge to snack around 3:30.
Once I figured out all the parts of the loop, it seemed fairly easy to change my habit. But the psychologists and neuroscientists warned me that, for my new behavior to stick, I needed to abide by the same principle that guided Procter & Gamble in selling Febreze: To shift the routine — to socialize, rather than eat a cookie — I needed to piggyback on an existing habit. So now, every day around 3:30, I stand up, look around the newsroom for someone to talk to, spend 10 minutes gossiping, then go back to my desk. The cue and reward have stayed the same. Only the routine has shifted. It doesn’t feel like a decision, any more than the M.I.T. rats made a decision to run through the maze. It’s now a habit. I’ve lost 21 pounds since then (12 of them from changing my cookie ritual).
After Andrew Pole built his pregnancy-prediction model, after he identified thousands of female shoppers who were most likely pregnant, after someone pointed out that some of those women might be a little upset if they received an advertisement making it obvious Target was studying their reproductive status, everyone decided to slow things down.
The marketing department conducted a few tests by choosing a small, random sample of women from Pole’s list and mailing them combinations of advertisements to see how they reacted.
“We have the capacity to send every customer an ad booklet, specifically designed for them, that says, ‘Here’s everything you bought last week and a coupon for it,’ ” one Target executive told me. “We do that for grocery products all the time.” But for pregnant women, Target’s goal was selling them baby items they didn’t even know they needed yet.
“With the pregnancy products, though, we learned that some women react badly,” the executive said. “Then we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We’d put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance.
“And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons. She just assumes that everyone else on her block got the same mailer for diapers and cribs. As long as we don’t spook her, it works.”
In other words, if Target piggybacked on existing habits — the same cues and rewards they already knew got customers to buy cleaning supplies or socks — then they could insert a new routine: buying baby products, as well. There’s a cue (“Oh, a coupon for something I need!”) a routine (“Buy! Buy! Buy!”) and a reward (“I can take that off my list”). And once the shopper is inside the store, Target will hit her with cues and rewards to entice her to purchase everything she normally buys somewhere else. As long as Target camouflaged how much it knew, as long as the habit felt familiar, the new behavior took hold.
Soon after the new ad campaign began, Target’s Mom and Baby sales exploded. The company doesn’t break out figures for specific divisions, but between 2002 — when Pole was hired — and 2010, Target’s revenues grew from $44 billion to $67 billion. In 2005, the company’s president, Gregg Steinhafel, boasted to a room of investors about the company’s “heightened focus on items and categories that appeal to specific guest segments such as mom and baby.”
Pole was promoted. He has been invited to speak at conferences. “I never expected this would become such a big deal,” he told me the last time we spoke.