Chili’s gets burned by an antivaccine group posing as an “autism advocacy” group

Here I am, sitting on the balcony of my hotel room in sunny San Diego, as I get ready to head over to the 2014 meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR). The sun is rising over the mountains, and the only sound I hear is that of running water in the swimming pool below (well, that and traffic around the convention center, the odd siren, and the noise of air conditioner fans), and I need to produce something quick for the blog. Realizing that last week, I described myself as having fallen into a “rut,” not because I thought my posts were substandard but rather because I seemed to be perseverating on the topic of the antivaccine movement, I hesitated to take on this topic. It’s something that happened over the weekend, and, yes, it has to do with the antivaccine movement. It’s also the perfect topic for a short (for Orac, at least) post. Unfortunately it’s about the antivaccine movement. I was torn. It’s perfect (and hilarious). It’s a cautionary tale for companies seeking to do good.

And Mike Adams wrote about it last night.

Crap! Rut or no rut, it’s time for Orac to do what Orac does best.

Let’s get the Mikey version of events first, realizing that whatever Mikey says about something and reality tend to be related only by coincidence, if even that. It’s more than that, though. Mikey only includes what serves his purpose in his descriptions, and then only in the most histrionic, conspiracy-laden way possible. He’s not unlike a spin-the-bottle conspiracy game; he’ll kiss any conspiracy where the needle points. So it is here:

The medical mafia is alive and well in America today, where pro-vaccine thought police routinely engage in malicious campaigns to smear anyone who dares ask the question “Are vaccines linked to autism?”

When Chili’s recently announced they would make a one-day gesture to provide financial assistance to families devastated by autism, even that was too much for the medical mafia. Their operatives fanned out across the mainstream media to disparage Chili’s for even daring to help autistic children. The danger of people becoming merely “aware” of autism is so great, it seems, that even a goodwill effort to help support mothers of autistic children must be stifled and shut down as quickly as possible.

Adams says that as though it were a bad thing!

Not surprisingly, that’s not quite what happened. (Remember, Mikey’s connection with reality is tenuous at best, even at the best of times.) A more accurate take can be found at a Business Insider article that set off the conflagration in a teapot:

In honor of National Autism Awareness Month, Chili’s is planning to donate 10% of customers’ checks on April 7 to the National Autism Association, a charity with controversial views about vaccinations.

More than 1,200 Chili’s restaurants will participate in the fundraiser for the group, which writes vaccinations can trigger or exacerbate autism in “some, if not many, children” on its website.

Indeed, on its website, the NAA states that it believes:

Vaccinations can trigger or exacerbate autism in some, if not many, children, especially those who are genetically predisposed to immune, autoimmune or inflammatory conditions.

It also lists the usual autism “biomed” suspects besides vaccines, including pesticides, pharmaceuticals, proximity to freeways (not true), and other favorite “environmental cause” hobby horses of the antivaccine movement. Although I haven’t blogged about the NAA as much as, say, Jenny McCarthy’s antivaccine group Generation Rescue, the wretched hive of scum and antivaccine quackery known as the Age of Autism blog, or SafeMinds, make no mistake. NAA is cut from the same cloth, and that cloth is antivaccine. Let’s just put it this way. As BI points out, the NAA is a sponsor of AoA. (Just look at the right sidebar of the AoA blog if you don’t believe me. The NAA is listed as a sponsor there, along with other antivaccine groups like SafeMinds, Generation Rescue, and the Canary Party. You don’t sponsor AoA unless you’re either (1) antivaccine to the core or (2) easily duped. OK, NAA is both, but it’s easily duped about antivaccine pseudoscience; it knows what AoA is. After all, its board of directors is made up of antivaccine stalwarts like Katie Wright and Wendy Fournier.

So what happened? Basically, Chili’s corporate management thought it would try to do a good thing, for which it is to be commended. Unfortunately, its choice of what constitutes a “good thing” was woefully misguided in that it clearly didn’t vet the organization it planned to support. In any case, Chili’s “Give Back” events involve donating 10% of the receipts from a single day’s sales to a cause or charity. It’s a nice gesture on behalf of a corporation. However, as is so often the case when it comes to “autism awareness,” an antivaccine group claimed the mantle of “autism awareness” and clearly duped whoever is in charge of choosing charities to benefit from Chili’s Give Back events. They do that by playing up the other things that they do and carefully making no mention of their support of antivaccine pseudoscience and “autism biomed” quackery, posing instead as legitimate autism advocacy groups.

If, as was almost certainly the case at Chili’s, the people picking the charities don’t know about a group’s background, then they can be easy to fool. Sometimes, however, there are people with antivaccine views in companies looking to make charitable donations, and they try to steer the corporate generosity towards their favorite antivaccine group. In any case, the result often ends up not being what the corporation had hoped for. Such was definitely the case with Chili’s. Not surprisingly, such shenanigans tend to peak every year in April, which is Autism Awareness Month. Then, of course, some of these antivaccine groups do more than just agitate against vaccines. AoA, for instance, does publish posts about autistic children wandering off and how to stop that, posts decrying violence against autistic children, and the like. Apparently, the NAA fooled Chili’s by asking for money for its program designed to help families of autistic children who wander. After the BI article appeared, initially Chili’s tried to make excuses and still stay the course:

At Chili’s Grill & Bar, we’re about making every guest feel special and pride ourselves in giving back to our communities. When choosing a charitable partner for our Give Back Events, both locally and nationally, we are committed to supporting organizations dedicated to helping children and their families. The intent of this fundraiser was not to express a view on this matter, but rather to support the families affected by autism. Our choice to partner with the National Autism Association was based on the percentage of donations that would go directly to providing financial assistance to families and supporting programs that aid the development and safety of children with autism.

Of course, one can almost hear the sound of backpedaling in the carefully crafted corporate-speak of the message above, and yesterday the backpedaling led to a reversal the day before the event, which was originally scheduled for today. (Hey, it just occurred to me: A Monday? Come on! Monday nights tend to be the slowest business days of most restaurants; it’s why some restaurants close on Mondays. But I digress.) In any case, here’s the statement from Chili’s, posted to its Facebook page yesterday:

Chili’s is committed to giving back to the communities in which our guests live and work through local and national Give Back Events. While we remain committed to supporting the children and families affected by autism, we are canceling Monday’s Give Back Event based on the feedback we heard from our guests.

We believe autism awareness continues to be an important cause to our guests and team members, and we will find another way to support this worthy effort in the future with again our sole intention being to help families affected by autism. At Chili’s, we want to make every guest feel special and we thank all of our loyal guests for your thoughtful questions and comments.

My guess as to what happened? After the BI article and the attention from the science-based community that it garnered, Chili’s took the time to—oh, you know—check into the background of the NAA and didn’t like what it found. It then waffled a couple of days, trying to determine which would result in worse PR, continuing with a charity event to support a bunch of antivaccine loons while hiding behind the claim that it’s only supporting that group’s autism advocacy and help to autistic families, or canceling the event and walking away with egg on its face. Chili’s chose the latter. This led Mikey into even more over-the-top tin foil hat hyperbole than usual:

What’s really happening today with children being harmed by vaccines is nothing less than a medical holocaust being carried out in total secrecy with strong-arm enforcement accomplished by a gang of corporate-sponsored “science” goons collaborating with pro-business mainstream media to smear, attack and denigrate all who oppose toxic chemicals in vaccines. You are witnessing chemical warfare being waged against our children — and yet you’re not supposed to even ask questions about why it’s happening!

Even the call to take the mercury out of vaccines is viciously attacked by the medical mafia. Mercury, you see, is a “desirable ingredient” by vaccine-pushing zealots, many of whom quite literally demonstrate the kind of psychotic behavior caused by exposure to mercury. In other words, the medical mafia is largely made up of people who are damaged by the very same brain-damaging toxins they’re trying to push onto others. Mercury makes people not just crazy, but also violent and psychotic — and that’s the perfect description of the medial mafia trolls you see on social media or writing crazed, inflammatory opinion pieces in mainstream business magazines.

You know what’s truly hilarious about Mikey’s post? (Besides the incredibly spittle-flecked prose?) It’s that his utterly loony rhetoric about the “medical mafia,” a “chemical holocaust” due to vaccines, and his belief that vaccines make people violent because of the mercury will likely do far more confirm to Chili’s management that it made the right choice. I rather suspect that, in secret, the NAA is rather unhappy with Mikey. Through the cancellation by Chili’s of its Give Back event, the NAA might have had a setback in its goal, a goal shared by many “mainstream” antivaccine groups, to achieve “respectability,” but it can and will try again with another corporation somewhere, sometime. Now it might have to wait much longer before trying again, because the fresh memory of (not to mention Google searches of NAA showing) Mikey’s raving support will make it more difficult for the NAA to overcome that problem the next time it tries to fool a corporation into thinking it’s a legitimate “autism advocacy” charity rather than an antivaccine group. I actually do feel sorry for Chili’s and almost—almost!—feel sorry for the NAA.

On second thought, no I don’t, at least not for the NAA. Just check out Wendy Fournier’s reaction:

Wendy Fournier, president of NAA, said, “It was obvious that the comments [Chili’s was] getting were a fight about vaccines. Everybody was all heated up and wanting to boycott. It was bullying. It was orchestrated by a small number of people who wanted to deny assistance to families that we serve through our program.”

Fournier said that NAA is not anti-vaccination, and that she and her co-workers have vaccinated their children. She said that the statements on the NAA website about vaccinations and autism are the views of parents who “are entitled to their viewpoints without being attacked.”

Everyone’s entitled to her own viewpoint, as they say, but she’s not entitled to her own facts. Also, freedom of speech does not equal freedom from criticism. If you hold pseudoscientific antivaccine views that, if implemented, would harm children, you will be criticized. Also, how many organizations have statements on their website that they don’t endorse without actually…oh, you know…having labeled them as not being endorsed by the organization? Particularly when the statements are prefaced by “the National Autism Association believes“? Not “some of our parents believe,” but “the National Autism Association believes.” Not many. Alternatively, even if you take the NAA at its word, it’s clearly an incompetently run organization if it can’t update its website after “years” to reflect its current views. No, I suspect that the NAA wants to have it both ways, and this time it got burned. Good.

Thanks, Mikey! Without meaning to, you’ve actually probably helped the pro-science cause by laying bare the associations between NAA and the antivaccine movement. I’m sure Ms. Fournier appreciates your efforts on the NAA’s behalf.