Advocacy Ads: Easy Money?
Special-interest spots prove profitable—but painful
By Bill McConnell -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/27/2005 7:00:00 PM
Americans must wait years before President Bush’s plan to allow workers to invest some Social Security contributions on Wall Street pays off. But TV stations are cashing in today—thanks to issue advertising by activists on both sides of the debate.
The catch: Station owners must be willing to dodge the crossfire of America’s political wars.
Rare for a non-election year, political advertising in 2005 is shaping up to be a cash cow for stations. Free-market activists promise to spend at least $50 million promoting private Social Security accounts, mostly on TV. Opponents of the White House plan, including AARP and the NAACP, aim to counter them dollar for dollar. Tens of millions more are expected to pour in for ads on tort reform, gay marriage and other hot-button social issues. And millions more will flow when Congress begins rewriting U.S. telecommunications laws this summer.
TV-station owners love the cash but are discovering that advocacy ads can also be a headache. Because of the high stakes, activists not only mount ad campaigns but have taken to public-relations attacks on stations that run opponents’ ads or fail to run their own. More worrisome, some activists—on both the right and left—hint they’ll force stations to fend off costly FCC complaints or challenges to their broadcast licenses for showing favor. The prospect of paying lawyers’ fees and spending months navigating an FCC investigation is a worry many activists don’t mind planting in station managers’ minds.
“Any time an ad misleads people about the president’s plan, stations can expect a call from us,” says Danny Diaz, spokesman for the Republican National Committee (RNC), which shot an ominous-sounding letter to 14 TV stations in Florida, Indiana and Pennsylvania earlier this month.
RNC Deputy Counsel Michael Bayes urged them not to air ads by liberal activist group MoveOn.org, which warned that Bush’s plan could cut guaranteed benefits as much as 46%. Republicans cried foul because the first people likely to see cuts that large won’t even be born until 2008. “As an FCC licensee, you have a responsibility ... to avoid broadcasting deliberate misrepresentations of the facts,” Bayes wrote. “This letter places you on notice” that the MoveOn ad is misleading. “Your station should act responsibly and refrain from airing this advertisement.”
None of the 14 stations running the ad honored the GOP’s request to pull the spots, although NBC affiliate WNDU South Bend, Ind., did ask MoveOn to change the wording. The ads stopped running on schedule, three days after the GOP issued the Feb. 3 letter.
Even though the stations largely ignored the request, Diaz considers the letter a huge success. “Next time MoveOn tries to buy time,” he says, “stations across the country will give their claims a very close look.”
WNDU GM Jim Behling believes the letter was meant to scare stations. “Our licenses are coming up for renewal soon,” he says. “It would be naïve to think the RNC wasn’t aware of the timing.”
Would the Republican Party really ask the FCC to strip licenses or file false-advertising complaints? Diaz “won’t discuss strategy” but says cryptically, “Stay tuned.”
Richard Zaragoza, who represents state broadcasting associations in Washington, says letters objecting to commercials and other content are becoming more numerous. Stations have little to fear because political- issue ads, even if they’re misleading, don’t break the law in the same way as promos for, say, phony diet drugs. “We are not talking about deceptive practices in a commercial setting,” he says.
The harassment isn’t coming just from conservatives. Liberal activists have cried foul repeatedly over the major broadcast networks’ refusal to run ads supporting equal rights for homosexual couples and opposing the White House plan to limit medical-malpractice awards.
A group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) asked the FCC to investigate the networks’ advocacy-advertising policies after the Big Four broadcast networks refused to air a spot featuring Dylan Malone, whose son had died as a result of negligence. That complaint came on the heels of a PR campaign mounted by the United Church of Christ and its allies during the Christmas holidays after NBC and CBS refused to air spots criticizing other denominations that don’t welcome openly gay individuals.
Ironically, the attacks on the networks have been spurred by their desire to avoid criticism by rejecting all controversial ads.
“The networks’ policies are inconsistent,” says CREW’s Naomi Seligman. She complains that the networks routinely run White House-bought spots on controversial issues, such as one explaining the Medicare prescription-drug plan or supporting asbestos reform.
Alan Wurtzel, head of standards and practices for NBC, calls CREW’s attacks a publicity stunt. “A lot of these groups are giving us commercials they know we will reject, then asking the press to write about it,” he says. “They realize they can get more coverage than if we ran their ad in the first place.” Any issue ad on a controversial topic is off limits, no matter the sponsor, he insists.
As for running commercials touting the benefits of Medicare changes, Wurtzel says the spots became acceptable only after the prescription-drug benefit was signed into law. During the debate, NBC left the issue to the networks’ journalists. “That’s why God invented the news division,” he says.
CBS spokesman Dana McClintock explains a similar policy at his network: “We don’t want one side with deep pockets to have the advantage formulating the debate.”
But media researchers say the Bush Administration is getting a boost from the networks’ policy because many companies are able to sneak brief, usually pro-Republican, references to controversial issues as their tag line in corporate-image ads. In a report to be released on March 16, the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center finds that Republican-leaning business interests outspent citizens groups on TV by a 5-1 ratio.
With the fight over Social Security just beginning and equally bitter battles over other Bush initiatives on the horizon, lawyer Zaragoza predicts the number of complaints over ads will only increase. His advice to stations: Treat factual disputes fairly by vetting complaints with the ad sponsor and correcting statements it can’t defend. “That will be the last thing a station hears about the matter.”
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