Jul 1 1993

Health Debate in Quarantine

Back in 1990, the grassroots group Neighbor to Neighbor called for a boycott of Folgers coffee to protest human rights abuses in El Salvador, a country Folgers bought coffee beans from. When Neighbor to Neighbor tried to run ads publicizing this boycott, however, nearly every TV station turned the group down.

The reason stations were reluctant to air the ad soon became apparent. One of the few stations that did accept the spot was Boston’s WHDH, a CBS affiliate. In response, Folgers’ parent company, Procter & Gamble, cancelled the $1 million it spent annually on advertising at the station.

Three years later, Neighbor to Neighbor tried to run another ad on WHDH–this time promoting a Canadian-style single-payer health care plan. At first, according to Neighbor to Neighbor spokesperson Rob Everts, the response was at least honest: “It looks as if all the substantiation is here,” the station’s public affairs director reportedly said (CounterSpin, 5/22/93). “However, many of our advertisers are health insurers, and we don’t want to take any hits from the health insurance companies.”

But after station executives had time to think it over, their line changed. They rejected the ad, issuing this statement: “The station management feels that the issue is not addressed in a comprehensive manner in a 30-second format and will address it itself in a longer form sometime in the future.” (Boston Globe, 5/25/93)

Other TV stations had equally disingenuous reasons for rejecting the Neighbor to Neighbor ads: The spots were said to be “confusing,” “simplistic,” and lacking in “documentation.” Presumably these stations feel the commercials for detergent and beer they run every 10 minutes are clear, complex and well-documented. (Two of the 10 stations approached by Neighbor to Neighbor did accept the ad: KGTV and KNSD, both in San Diego.)

But the most obvious hypocrisy is that TV ads are appearing across the country by the “Coalition for Health Insurance Choices,” promoting “a plan supported by consumers, businesses and health care professionals.” Only the fine print at the end of the ad informs viewers that the ads are really funded by the Health Insurance Association of America, part of the industry’s $4 million PR campaign (The Nation, 6/14/93). When the other side of the debate can’t even buy time to have its say, what kind of debate do you really have?