"We're not able to get fair coverage editorially," Cohen said. "Now even if you buy time, they're refusing to let us get our message across."
Cohen and Greenfield aren't alone. Last month, the country's third largest cable provider, Comcast, suddenly pulled a series of anti-war ads created by Peace Action that had been scheduled to run in the Washington, D.C., area around the time of President Bush's State of the Union speech. A few weeks earlier, the online activist group MoveOn.org had tried--and failed--to get a provocative anti-war message onto national television; it referenced Lyndon Johnson's infamous 1964 "Daisy" spot linking a little girl and a nuclear explosion.
Other anti-war activists have also found that money doesn't necessarily translate into increased visibility if the message you're selling doesn't fit the national script. The position taken against so-called "advocacy ads" by the national headquarters of Fox, CNN, ABC, CBS and NBC is a major stumbling block to expanding public debate.
Left-leaning ads have a long history of being shoved aside by the major networks. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has been trying for years to get anti-leather, anti-beef commercials aired during the Super Bowl. In 1997, ABC rejected ads for a gay-targeted cruiseline and the Human Rights Campaign during the coming-out episode of Ellen. In 2000, both ABC and CBS rejected an ad that encouraged viewers to "fight for your right to a safe and legal abortion," even though both had previously run now-famous anti-abortion ads with the tagline, "Life: What a beautiful choice." And every November, the activists at Adbusters try to buy time for "Buy Nothing Day" ads, and every November the big three networks turn them down.
What justification do TV executives give for these refusals?
NBC: "It pertained to a controversial issue which we prefer to handle in our news and public affairs programming."
CBS: "Policy precludes accepting commercials which take an advocacy position on one side of a controversial issue of public importance."
ABC: "We have a blanket policy against advocacy ads of any kind."
But if networks really do have "blanket policies" against running ads about "controversial issues of public importance," how are we to account for the anti-marijuana propaganda that regularly spills from the nation's television sets? And why is it that commercials that encourage people to become vegetarians are too hot for network television, but commercials that promote the heavily subsidized beef and pork industries are allowed to flood the airwaves? Why isn't it considered "advocacy" when a large company like, say, Pfizer seeks to build its image with feel-good ads "
designed to improve the public's perception of the drug industry" and fight "negative publicity over drug prices," as FDA News put it last October?
The networks' explanations don't make much sense. Is there an issue "of public importance" in America that can't be considered "controversial?"
Network execs are quick to point out that they say no to conservative ads, too. Last fall, CNN rejected two spots from right-leaning pro-Israel groups, citing its policy of avoiding "international advocacy ads on regions in conflict." In 2000, CBS turned down the Christian Web site iBelieve.com after it tried buying spots during Touched By An Angel and the miniseries Jesus. CBS actually told iBelieve.com that the ad's content was so similar to the programming it could confuse viewers, and invited the religious company to advertise its religious products only during non-religious shows. When iBelieve.com pointed out that sports companies are allowed to advertise sports products during sports shows, there was no response from network execs.
A more honest, if still inadequate, explanation for the refusals was provided by spokespeople from NBC and CBS in response to the 2000 "Buy Nothing Day" campaign. NBC stated that the ads--which encourage a less wasteful, more thoughtful approach to the pursuit of happiness--were "inimical to our legitimate business interests." CBS went further, telling Adbusters the ads were "in opposition to the current economic policy in the United States."
Apparently, the "current economic policy in the United States" leaves no room for anti-American notions like, say, reducing waste. And you can forget about leading a less frenzied and consumption-driven life--why, that's just plain inimical to the media's "legitimate business interests." Can't have any of that. Please continue with your shopping.
Activists denied access to the national platform that is routinely given to soap, car and junk food manufacturers do have another option. They're taking their spots to local affiliates, which are often more than happy to accept left-wing money. MoveOn.org managed to show its "Daisy" ad in 14 cities--including an appearance on the ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C., during the Super Bowl. But the process can be hit or miss; "Daisy" was rejected without explanation by the NBC affiliate in D.C. as well as Los Angeles.
Triangle-area TV stations are a bit more open, it seems. Here's how local affiliates responded when asked last week if they would ban anti-war advocacy ads from local airwaves:
NBC 17 General Manager Mike Ward: "We don't have a blanket ban. It's always case by case. Is it in good taste? Does it meet the truth standard? Do they have the money to pay for it? If the ad is too doggone scary, we wouldn't dissuade someone from running it; we'd tell them what we objected to and ask them to do it again."
WB22 execs deferred to Mark Hyman at the Baltimore headquarters of station owner Sinclair Broadcasting, who said, "As a rule we don't want to be in the business of rejecting ads; that's our sole source of revenue." Hyman added that Sinclair stations have in the past rejected a "gruesome" NAACP ad about the James Byrd lynching but have no blanket ban.
WRAL 5 Ad Manager Quinn Koontz: "We would entertain looking at the spot. I do run issue ads, but we reserve the right to view them before airing. Every issue ad stands on its own legs." Koontz added the station would not air ads it considered "too graphic" and named People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as an example of a group that had gone too far in the past.
ABC 11 General Sales Manager Chris Nesbitt: "Yes, we take issue ads. For an anti-war ad, I'd have to check with our legal department, but I'm pretty damn sure we'd take it."
As activists think about getting their message onto local TV stations across the country, they might do well to avoid the pitfalls that have derailed previous campaigns. When Comcast rejected the Peace Action ad, for example, it cited "unsubstantiated claims" as its justification. Peace Action got lots of public relations mileage from the refusal, but it can be the president and his pro-war advisors was hardly designed to smooth the way.
And can MoveOn.org really blame local stations for rejecting an ad that links a happy little girl with a nuclear explosion? No, says one local television worker who asked to remain anonymous.
"Get serious. Post-9/11, we spent how much time teaching parents to talk to their kids about why those buildings fell down? And now you're going to ask us to show them an ad with an atom bomb blowing up a kid? What station's going to do that?"