What first catches your eye is the cartoonishly bewildered look on the three canines staring at you from a full page ad in the Los Angeles Times.
"Surprised to hear the Humane Society of the United States shares only 1 percent of your donations with local pet shelters?" reads the text, with the punchline, "The Humane Society of hte United States is NOT your local animal shelter."
Why would anyone pay the expense of a fullpage ad to knock the Humane Society?
"This is a campaign designed to dry up support for animal welfare in America," responds Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of the Humane Society of the Unites States, a separate entity from the local humane societies across the country. Pacelle said the group behind the ad knows better, that the local humane societies focus on animal shelters while the national organization takes on other roles, including advocacy for animal protection that affects the food industry and other big business. "This is a brand attack by con artists," Pacelle declares.
So who exactly is behind it?
Well, taking responsibility at the bottom of the ad is HumaneWatch.org. Go to its website, look at the bottom of the homepage, and you find Copyright Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit organization run by Richard Berman of the Washington, DC PR firm Berman and Company.
Berman makes no effort to hide the fact his firm has set up a whole spectrum of nonprofi orgnanizations to challenge existing nonprofit groups, from the Humane Society to Mothers Against Drug Driving to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The arguments made by Berman's groups tend to support the interests of major business industries, including food, tobacco, and alcohol.
Berman's American Beverage Institute challenges harsher penalties for drunk driving, along with DUI checkpoints, and even ignition interlocks designed to keep those convicted of a DUI from driving after they've been drinking.
Berman's "Fishscam" questions the harm of mercury in some seafood.
The Center for Consumer Freedom challenges research that finds health hazards associaetd with transfats and high fat diets.
On his firm's website, Berman states, "My goal is to make people say, 'I've never thought of it that way before." A common Berman foe is the "nanny state."
There's no question Berman's agendas resonate with millions of Americans who believe in minimizing government regulation of business.
But Berman critics, such as Pacelle, say citizens and consumers--not to mention the targets--should be entitled to know who's funding these attacks. Is it business that have a vested financial interest in funding a third party to go on the attack for them? Pacelle thinks that's obvious. But reality is, we may never know for sure.
Nonprofits are not required to disclose their contributors.
Berman does not have to say who's funding his campaigns. And he doesn't.
It's been four years since the CBS Program 60 Minutes put Berman in the spotlight and raised questions about his modus operandi. MSNBC's Rachel Maddow has made Berman campaigns a frequent subject on her nightly program. We were told Berman was unavailable when we called Monday afternoon, but he has allowed interviews over the years and even accepted an invitiation to appear on Maddow's program in October of 2009.
Berman told Maddow that advocacy groups on all sides of the political spectrum make use of non-profits to advance their agendas. "All through politics people have nonprofits that are advocacy nonprofits. And they all are refusing to submit donor lists because they don't want to have their free speech curtailed by people coming at them," Berman said.
What's undisputed is Berman's flair for getting his campaigns attention. Last year, HumaneWatch.org captured eyeballs with billboards in New York's Times Square. But who feels threatened by the Humane Society?
Pacelle, the President and CEO, says he's not completely sure how the Humane Society made Berman's hit list. But he thinks the precipitating event may have been the Society's support of California's 2008 Proposition 2, which called for higher standards of treament of animals raised for food. Despite agri-business's vehement opposition, voters approved it.
Pacelle would not say how much Berman's campaign has hurt the Humane Society's fundraising. But he does take a certain perverse pride in being targeted. Pacelle says if "we were ineffective...they wouldn't go after us."