Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Toxic Sludge Is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry

Rate this book
Common Courage’s number one seller blows the lid off of today's multi-billion-dollar propaganda-for-hire PR industry, revealing how public relations wizards concoct and spin the news, organize phony "grassroots" front groups, spy on citizens and conspire with lobbyists and politicians.

224 pages, Paperback

First published July 1, 1995

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Mark Dowie

10 books8 followers

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
189 (30%)
4 stars
271 (43%)
3 stars
122 (19%)
2 stars
32 (5%)
1 star
5 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 48 reviews
Profile Image for Mario the lone bookwolf.
795 reviews3,611 followers
November 9, 2019
The book shows the history of PR and how it grew more and more subtle in manipulating everything.

There are so many examples that making a list of it would take endless time, just walk through a city or scroll through the internet and find vast quantities of any kind of hidden influence. So just as examples what was and is possible, interpreting the title of the book for different goals:
Smoking is cool and good.
Sugar is bad, fat is ok.
Vote for me, because, subtle propaganda.
Alcohol makes you fancy.
Driving fast is great fun.

It is especially interesting how the offensive and, seen with today's knowledge, quite awkward commercials, have doomed millions of people by bringing them sickness and early death. Try analyzing old commercials, beginning with the first placards, the first moving commercials until today and you see how the subtility increased.

Wonderful, explicit parody: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrVLB...

A wiki walk can be as refreshing to the mind as a walk through nature in this, yuck, ugh, boo, completely overrated real-life outside books:


Profile Image for Maru Kun.
215 reviews485 followers
August 21, 2016
I have always thought the PR industry was made up of a crooked bunch of shysters who would sell their own grandmothers if it could either get their press releases on the front page or - probably more common - bury news of the crooked deeds of their employers on the back page. Well, it turns out they are much worse than that.

The most shocking thing about this book is that it was written in around 1995 so the PR industry has had another two decades to think up even more immoral deceptions in the mean time.

To give you the flavor here is a brief example from that book of the cynicism of the PR industry that will make you fear for the future of the human values of honesty and integrity.

Many thinking people know that the PR companies have units that set up fake "grass roots" campaigns ("astro-turf" campaigns) intended to pressurize politicians.

But did you imagine there are even companies that specialize in telephoning round to try and find individuals who they can groom with a few "grass roots" opinions on a topic? These companies then conference-call their mark through to the relevant politician's phone while dropping off the line. This was in 1995 - just imagine how worse things must be today.
Profile Image for Jodi.
Author 3 books72 followers
March 10, 2012
This is the sort of book that should be essential reading for everyone. Even if you are aware to some extent that our media (and government) plays to the tune of the corporations with the most financial power, and is anything but a source of actual unbiased news, this book is an enlightening and fascinating read.

This book explains that 40% of all news flows virtually unedited from PR companies, that there are more people working in PR than in journalism, and that most of what you see on the news is not news. It explains that those making US health care reform so difficult are lobbyists for the insurance and drug industries (obviously!). It also explains that there is no limit to how low corporations will go to protect their bottom line, subvert genuine activism and the state of knowledge in the general population on a topic.

There are also interesting parts in this book which discuss the way in which polluters and other groups organise campaigns against genuine advocacy efforts, such the book 'Silent Spring' and others. Negative articles and reviews may often even be written before the books are released. Nothing is left to chance. The books are systematically rubbished and denigrated and so are their authors.

It also writes brilliantly about the worrying rise of pretend 'grassroots' activist groups, AstroTurf groups, and how they are manipulating and subverting genuine advocacy attempts. It also discusses some of the shocking ways in which groups have planted fake members into real groups, with sometimes devastating personal effects for the individuals involved and also worked to co-opt genuine members of groups to completely turn against what they stand for. It tells these people that they aren't selling out, but just being 'realists' and persuades them to see the non-sellouts who want real change and refuse to compromise away the truth as being 'extreme.'

This book explains so much about so many truly terrible 'activism' groups out there!

This book talked about something I had long suspected, which is that the big 'advocacy' groups have in many cases been bought out or subverted by the vested interest groups they were created to bring to account. They are not even remotely working to push for real change. So groups which started with the aim to promote real change become a main reason why change does NOT occur, by doing nothing useful themselves and sucking up all the money and attention there is on a topic - leaving genuine small groups that are actually after real change with none.

Again, this explains so much.

Why we don't know about all this is because the media doesn't really report on itself or on PR. So the myth of a crusading media which holds groups and individuals harming the public to account, and whose work leads to government action, remains.

As someone says in the book, this book 'explains exactly how the magic of modern PR transforms the favoured policies or the rich and the powerful into incontrovertible common sense.'

And 'This is a war of the powerful against society.'

Understanding the concepts in this book is central to having a true understanding of our time and so books like this one are really important.

I wish more people knew to really question the really big health, environmental and other advocacy groups and the bogus information they support.

I also hope that people come away from reading this book prepared to look twice at all the issues that our modern media have told us are 'just obvious common sense' but where we are being hugely played and lied to.

The area of health is particularly surrounded by misinformation. Even worse, people are far more accepting of the health related news propaganda as being truthful. But science reporting is anything but black and white. Every news story on health is on the news because someone has paid for it to be there! It is not because it is genuine news, or because their 'breakthrough' really is so very important or because it really has been proven that non-drug therapy 'x' is completely useless in treating anything.

On a practical note, however, I do have to note that this book was VERY hard to read due to its being printed in light type that was very small and perhaps 9.5 point. The title and content are excellent. If only it had been better typeset! It gave me eyestrain!

The book could also have been improved by having some sort of a summary of the key points at the end, possibly.

I came away from reading this book grateful that the authors had written it, and also in absolute awe of all those amazing individuals that have stood up to these corrupt groups and corporations in various ways and have lost everything by doing so; their careers, their houses and all their money, and their reputations. Such sacrifice is awe inspiring, although the fact that it is necessary is maddening.

In a nutshell, be wary of big 'advocacy' groups whose bottom line is their own bottom line, and support small genuine advocacy groups that are working for real change.

Beware too of 'experts' and commonsense unquestionable 'facts' - look at the facts logically and follow the money!

Jodi Bassett, The Hummingbirds' Foundation for M.E.
Profile Image for Kimberly.
268 reviews
July 27, 2020
This book is so well written that despite what could be a boring topic, it kept my interest for three weeks and I looked forward to being able to read it almost every night. The authors draw on some real examples of overstepping and manipulation by the PR industry which doesn't seem very hard to find. The book was written in 1996 so the examples, while dated, continue to be very relevant, especially with the news we read about today - "fake news" is here. One may need to have been born before the early 1960s to fully appreciate the examples provided: the Iran/Contra scandal, a bit of Watergate, and many others. The book is very well-paced and the conclusion is particularly gratifying
Profile Image for Loki.
1,243 reviews9 followers
September 23, 2015
A corrective for anyone who thought that the characters on "Mad Men" or "Absolute Power" (the Stephen Fry one) were in some way 'cool'. They're not. They're soulless meat puppets who believe that you can put a dollar sign on everything - and that disagreeing with that idea constitutes thought crime.

More seriously, this is a really detailed look at the public relations industry in the USA, what it does, and how it does it. You will never trust again.

But remember: the business of America is business.
Profile Image for Public Scott.
624 reviews12 followers
September 4, 2019
As someone who works in media and is journalism-adjacent I learned a ton from this book. Just days after reading I am spotting the hand of the PR industry in places I never noticed in my 16-plus-year career. This book was a revelation. The chapter on toxic sludge was both horrifying and a perfect capstone. Eminently readable - a perfect antidote to corporate rhetoric and lies.
Profile Image for ThoughtCriminal.
13 reviews21 followers
July 28, 2020
The cover caught my eye as I'm sure it did many others and the title instantly describes in just a few words the reality of the world we live in today, bombarded by propaganda as we are (whether we realize it or not). I thought it might be a little dated as it was written before the internet was impossible to escape, but I was pleasantly surprised by the significance of the story being told while pondering the acceleration of such practices as a result of internet dominion and mass/social media control over us. We live in a world where "war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength" (thank you Mr. Blair, aka Orwell), where information has become weaponized and the news is manufactured by public relations firms, for corporations and governments alike. This book lays out the beginnings and the history of a completely amoral and sometimes (more often than not?) sinister industry that influences the products we buy, the causes we support, the actions of the powers that (should not) be, and more. We are taken on a journey with the early PR/propaganda practitioners like Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays, the bogus campaign for support of the first Iraq war, a few environmental and occupational disasters, the spin that was put on those stories, as well as an ironically true story about a PR campaign to convince people that, wait for it... "toxic sludge is good for you!" Includes some interesting stories and forgotten history about PR campaigns for politicians and celebrities still in the news today, e.g. Clintons and Trumps. Despite the comedic cover and title, 'Toxic Sludge' is certainly a serious, well researched and documented, informative and interesting read, even from 1995. A book still relevant today as relentless PR and media explode. They "inform" our perceptions of the world in which we live as media continues to consolidate, sanitize information and limit its access.

One of the most revealing quotes from this book is found in the introduction by Mark Dowie:
"Academicians who study media now estimate that about 40% of all "news" flows virtually unedited from the public relations offices, prompting a prominent PR exec to boast that "the best PR ends up looking like news."

And that was in 1995! It's a brave new world, indeed.

"The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of." Edward Bernays, Propaganda, 1928

Now onto 'Trust Us, We're Experts' by the same authors.
Profile Image for Simon Wood.
215 reviews127 followers
September 25, 2013

Public relations are the means by which power, whether economic or political, maintains and expands its privileges in a Democratic society. In "Toxic Sludge is Good For You" John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton of the Centre for Media and Democracy deal with this issue in a commendably straightforward and readable manner.

The book deals with a number of issues including (i) the origins of the PR industry; (ii) the tobacco industries use of PR to minimize the effect of the links between smoking and cancer in order to protect their very profitable activity; (iii) the role of PR in the nuclear power industry; (iv) the corporate use of PR in the face of the green movement that rapidly grew from the late 1960's; (v) the Christian rights use of PR methods; (vi) foreign policy and PR; and (vii) how PR has affected the media, with particular regards to the growing use of PR materials in the media in lieu of the more expensive practice of investigative reporting.

It deals with the full gamut of PR activities from the press release to the more controversial use of spies and agent provocateurs, the formation of fake grass-roots movements (known as astro-turf) and the methods used to subvert and divide real grass roots movements. These processes, and much more, are illustrated with examples that make clear the damage PR has done to democratic participation in decisions about how our societies function.

The PR industry knows no borders, and has expanded across the globe even to "communist" China, so while the book is rooted in U.S. experience, it has relevance for readers everywhere. Essential reading if you are interested in immunizing yourself from corporate or political propaganda, even more so if you're an activist in any shape or form. For a book that is more specific to the British experience, but also deals with PR's U.S. origins, one can't go wrong with "A Century of Spin". Nick Davies's excellent "Flat Earth News" includes a lengthy section on how PR gets in into the British media.
Profile Image for Esra Dillon.
4 reviews
March 26, 2013
Very frustrating but fantastic book. I fear that I can no longer read the paper, listen to the radio, or watch the news.
I am on to you, Public Relations Industry...
I'm watching you."I found myself particularly surprised at the duplicity utilised by The Body Shop, as well as other notable American corporations. I also highly recommend their other book, "Trust Us, We're Experts!" It's hard to be an idealist in an age of corporate spin, where everything bad is now good for you. Fortunately for the public at large, John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton have written a meticulously researched, hard-hitting, cynical look at the PR (public relations) industry and how its influence sometimes works against the public good.
Profile Image for Alexis Ohanian.
Author 5 books268 followers
February 28, 2010
You'll likely feel a bit slimy after reading this. It's hard to slog through at times, but it's worth it. Dense with facts, it will likely drop the jaw of even the most cynical reader at least once -- with some witty remarks to lighten the mood here and there. My thorough enjoyment of this book might be a personal thing, though -- I almost took a summer internship with a PR firm but instead went on the trip that motivated me to start a startup with Steve. Funny how things work out. Oh, and the cover/title is courtesy of Tom Tomorrow: +3 points.
Profile Image for sologdin.
1,706 reviews620 followers
February 22, 2015
solid analysis of cappy 'public relations,' i.e., organized & tolerated dishonesty in the midst of scientific truth, which is the historical answer to the feudal monarch's fool, who presented disorganized and tolerated honesty in the midst of flatterers.

case study/primary thematic is the toxic sludge of the title, which PR losers designated as 'biosolids' for reuse in human food production. gah.
Profile Image for Joseph.
61 reviews15 followers
August 6, 2007
I'm one cynical son of a bitch, and this book had even me going "goddamn!" every other page. Whether it's promoting the interests of murderous third world regimes to Congress or foisting Nestle formula on starving African mothers, it really makes you wonder "Is there anyone PR people won't take money from?" Answer:probably not.
6 reviews2 followers
October 16, 2012
Another example of a world view-altering book, in that it alerted me to the malleable nature of public opinion and that many of the thoughts we believe we have come by independently were in fact placed in the intellectual atmosphere surreptitiously by governmental and corporate elites via the public relations industry.
Profile Image for Will.
4 reviews5 followers
August 6, 2007
Bill Hicks once said something to the tune of "If you're in Marketing or Advertising - kill yourself". Whether or not that was a bit of a blanket statement remains to be seen, but the tales of PR trickery in this book would make Satan weep.
Profile Image for Joshua.
3 reviews
April 11, 2011
Absolutely the most enlightening book I've ever read. This should be required reading for everyone!!!
Profile Image for Harold Welsh.
13 reviews
May 31, 2013
want to know how things work in this countr? this book does a pretty good job of showing how.
Profile Image for Jack Oughton.
Author 6 books25 followers
October 3, 2013
If you want an idea of how much of our major & minor media is influenced/blatantly organised by PR strategies, take a look. Politics too, in the form of lobbying, etc.
It's kinda scary.
Profile Image for Niniane.
609 reviews167 followers
February 19, 2021
Amazing book that has made me see the US differently.

It explains how PR is used to trick a large part of the US population into believing lies. For decades, the tobacco industry cast confusion on whether smoking is definitely bad for your health. The meat industry has suppressed research showing that we should eat meat a maximum of a couple times per week.

It is chilling reading how far companies will go to preserve their profits. We were close to getting universal healthcare in 1993 and then the Republicans used PR to fight it off until the population was confused whether they even want it.
Profile Image for FiveBooks.
185 reviews72 followers
March 30, 2010
Investigative journalist Nick Davies has chosen to discuss John Stauber's Toxic Sludge is Good for You , on FiveBooks as one of the top five on his subject - Investigative Journalism, saying that:

“When I started out in journalism, 30-odd years ago, PR copy was a real rarity. If you were writing about crime, you’d call the police station and speak to an officer. If you were writing about healthcare you’d probably speak to a doctor. What’s really alarming is that often a good press officer can pick and choose what is printed about their organisation. They send out press releases, hold a press conference, and what gets said there is what gets printed.”

The full interview is available here: http://five-books.com/interviews/nick-davies
Profile Image for Aron.
168 reviews10 followers
January 13, 2016
No matter how cynical you are about our current behind-the-scenes pseudo corporatocracy (perhaps an exaggeration, but I do believe they're far more influential than they should be), chances are that you'll still be wowed by some of the content in this book. I've always hated commercials and advertisements, and (like most people, I'd like to think) have always been well aware of their purpose. I was not aware, however, that PR firms straight up publish NEWS articles alongside those advertisements. Nor was I aware that they craft video clips designed to look like legitimate reporting and send those in to news stations, who frequently air the material unedited. The amount of money spent on PR is just astounding - and this was written over ten years ago! Very well done.

Profile Image for Tim.
372 reviews32 followers
September 7, 2007
The first book you should read if you feel like getting angry at the public relations industry and the way they sell disaster. This book has some pretty crazy examples. The ones that stick in my mind are the people who infiltrate activist groups and try to push them towards extreme and/or criminal actions.

I could gripe a little that some of the examples aren't as firmly argued as I would prefer, but that's not really the point.

The point is this. Large corporations spend billions of dollars each year to manipulate the public opinion for their own private gain, and often the loss of common good. And, like advertising, it works -- if it didn't they wouldn't do it.
Profile Image for Tracy.
Author 31 books174 followers
July 8, 2008
I had to read this book in college several years ago. The material in the book is a bit dated at this point, but the message is highly relevant and the techniques of the public relations industry remain quite valid. You'll never see the world the same after reading this book. I've thought about it many times since reading it. Why is it so compelling? Because toxic sludge is good for you.

Why have I kept this little paperback for almost 10 years and will always keep this book until it's dust?

Because toxic sludge is good for you.
871 reviews
September 1, 2011
It's hard to be an idealist in an age of corporate spin, where everything bad is now good for you. Fortunately for the public at large, John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton have written a meticulously researched, hard-hitting, cynical look at the PR (public relations) industry and how its influence sometimes works against the public good. I found myself particularly surprised at the duplicity utilized by The Body Shop (a store I used to frequent), as well as other notable American corporations. I also highly recommend their other book, "Trust Us, We're Experts!"
Profile Image for jen.
12 reviews3 followers
December 14, 2007
Toxic Sludge is a great primer on the history of the public relations industry. While I might argue that the authors' arguments are weak at times, overall this book offers great insight into an industry with shady practices. It is a quick read, and certainly worth it for anyone who works in marketing, advertising, or PR (or anyone at all really).
Profile Image for Jenine Young.
444 reviews2 followers
February 25, 2016
This was an interesting look at how PR came to exist, and how it is used with subjects ranging from toxic sludge being pawned off as fertilizer to saying cancer rates are lower or even making a foreign government killing it's own people seem a bit more palatable.
It had it's boring points, but I think all nonfiction books do.
Profile Image for Toothy_grin.
51 reviews5 followers
November 19, 2008
A splendid primer on how the PR industry exits to make us ignorant, and how well it succeeds. This book should be required reading for every American, IMHO. Essential to an informed understanding of how the misinformation arm of the military-industrial-media complex works.
Profile Image for Ryan Mishap.
3,354 reviews60 followers
September 7, 2008
The classic look at PR bullshit. And don't think that any of this is out of date. While the internet has changed since this was printed--it should be revamped if it hasn't yet--all you have to do is multiply the corporate shenanigans by the power of the intertubes.
22 reviews2 followers
March 1, 2010
Describes, with many examples, of how the public awareness and framing of many issues is subject to distortion by public relations companies on behalf of firms, pressure groups, lobbies and governments.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 48 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.