Shining the light on hidden link

Crain's Chicago Business/December 5, 1988

By Rance Crain

I want to share with you a true story about a non-profit advertising group here in Chicago with secret (or, at the least, undisclosed) ties to Werner Erhard, the highly controversial founder of a self-help regimen that many people find obnoxious, if not down-right objectionable.

I certainly have no complaint about the personal search for self-realization. But if someone joins a non-profit ad group to help public-service organizations, they have a right to know whether they're also signing onto one of Mr. Erhard's ersatz cults.

I might have inadvertently endorsed this advertising group by serving on its advisory board, and I'm writing this column to make sure no one thinks I'm endorsing Mr. Erhard or that I condone hidden agendas.

The group in question is AdNet Chicago, the local branch of AdNet nationwide. AdNet Chicago is a volunteer group of communications professionals donating their time and talent to help non-profit organizations with the development and production of public service programs. In addition, the group's charter says, "Chicago helps its own membership by offering programs that address the issues of day-to-day jobs." Founded two years ago, Chicago has about 100 members.

In the past few weeks, three active AdNet members, including two board members, have resigned. All three, who asked that I not publish their names, gave the same reason: They resent the very strong ties between AdNet and organizations affiliated with Mr. Erhard. He's the founder of a national self-realization group called the Forum, which is a successor to Mr. Erhard's earlier venture into New Age spirituality, EST.

My sources allege that AdNet members are heavily pressured by other AdNet members to attend meetings of the Forum and other Erhard-sponsored retreats.

In at least two instances, employers paid the AdNet dues of employees who also attended the Forum. In other words, those companies may have unwittingly financed recruitment efforts for the Forum.

My sources also say that five of the six remaining AdNet board members are Forum veterans and that two would-be clients of AdNet -- the Chicago Hunger Campaign and Youth-at-Risk -- are Erhard enterprises. Thus, it's possible an Erhard-influenced non -profit group (AdNet) might perform free advertising and promotional services for some of Mr. Erhard's ventures.

My sources do not wish to be associated with Mr. Erhard, but their primary objection is that the connection between the two groups was not disclosed when they joined AdNet.

John Davidoff, founding president of AdNet Chicago, denies any connection between Mr. Erhard's projects and AdNet Chicago. He also claims he doesn't know how many board members have participated in the Forum.

When asked whether AdNet members were solicited by other members to attend the Forum, Mr. Davidoff had no comment. He also would not comment on whether he himself has participated in the Forum.

But the ties between Mr. Erhard and AdNet don't stop there.

The first AdNet chapter was founded in New York in 1983 by Trisha Scudder, an est graduate. Currently, Ms. Scudder, a 20-year veteran of the advertising business, is president and owner of Transformational Technologies, Inc., an Erhard enterprises. But Mr. Davidoff said he does not know whether Ms. Scudder is involved with any Erhard organizations.

Last week, Mr. Davidoff informed the publisher of Advertising Age, a sister publication of CRAIN'S CHICAGO BUSINESS, that AdNet Chicago is connected by name only to AdNet New York. Yet Ms. Scudder is scheduled to present a seminar to AdNet Chicago on Dec. 8. What's more, my sources say that $ 24 of every $ 60 annual membership dues have gone to AdNet New York.

But when asked about the relationship between the Chicago and New York AdNet groups, Mr. Davidoff referred questions to his attorney. His attorney said he did not know whether such an arrangement exists.

My sources readily acknowledge that AdNet has performed worthwhile projects for several non-Erhard organizations. They are concerned, however, that the Erhard influence has become too dominant and that the reasons they joined AdNet may be swallowed up by devotion to Mr. Erhard's projects.

My interest in this matter is more than academic. Several months ago, I agreed to be a member of AdNet Chicago's advisory board. In so doing, it appears I have unwittingly endorsed Erhard programs. Under the circumstances -- though I wish AdNet well in its ongoing public service efforts -- I feel it best to resign from the advisory board.


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