Sep 1 2000

Pro-Choice Not Networks’ Choice

Abortion rights ads too "controversial" for TV

During the past three decades, the religious right has slowly chipped away at women’s access to safe, legal reproductive services with a multi-tiered approach to anti-abortion activism. Legislative efforts have resulted in funding restrictions, waiting periods, parental consent and notification bills, as well as so-called “fetal protection” bills and “partial birth” abortion bans attempting to criminalize doctors. Meanwhile, violence and harassment aimed at clinics and doctors have forced many physicians to stop providing abortion services.

At the same time, anti-choice activists have worked to create a perceptual sea change using media–particularly paid commercials–to sway public opinion. In the most high-profile, long-ranging and costly of these campaigns, between 1992 and 1998 the conservative Arthur S. DeMoss Foundation periodically hit prime-time airwaves with national television ads bearing the tagline “Life. What a Beautiful Choice.” The foundation’s goal, as DeMoss told the St. Petersburg Times (3/12/00), was “to change hearts and minds” of viewers.

Ranked by the Foundation Center as one of the 100 largest U.S. grantmaking foundations, the Florida-based DeMoss poured an estimated $100 million into the “Life” commercials. Emotional and persuasive, DeMoss’ “Life” spots were about as subtle as a clinic blockade. Running on national networks including ABC, CBS and CNN as well as local stations, the most talked-about ad featured beatific children running through sunny fields, smiling brightly and embracing their families, while sympathetic-sounding women murmured in amazement that they’d ever considered ending their pregnancies. The word “abortion,” however, was never mentioned.

Another spot that danced around the A-word ran on CNN and other stations in 1998. Viewers saw a large, healthy child stretching in a nursery crib juxtaposed with an in-utero photo of a not-far-along fetus. “Let’s compare these two babies,” a soft-spoken male narrator intoned. “The baby on the left has a beating heart. So does the baby on the right.” After running through arms, legs, fingers and toes, the spot concludes: “The difference is, the baby on the left is just born–and the baby on the right would very much like to be. Life. What a beautiful choice.”

While DeMoss’ national campaign is over, groups such as the Life Education Fund of Colorado (LEF) are still airing television commercials aimed at shifting public opinion against abortion in local and state markets. Since 1996, LEF has aired several anti-choice ads statewide on affiliates of virtually every network, according to LEF executive director Lisa Dotur.

LEF has not had many problems getting airtime for their commercials, some of which have dealt indirectly with topical political issues, such as parental notification requirements. Echoing DeMoss’ stated objective, Dotur has described LEF’s goal as “to start with people’s hearts and minds by using media to reach out to the public” (Insight, 1/22/00).

In its newsletter Lifessence (Fall/98), LEF boasted that polls show their commercials “have influenced a 35 percent increase in consistent pro-life positions” in Colorado, resulting in a statewide “net change of 10 percentage points” in favor of anti-abortion sentiments since they began airing the ads.

Controversial old guys

Whether or not LEF can quantify specific ideological shifts resulting from their campaign, the high-concept, well-funded anti-abortion ads by DeMoss, LEF and others are part of a concerted right-wing effort to shift public opinion that appears to be having some success (New York Times, 7/6/00), and this shift in turn has facilitated the passage of restrictive abortion legislation in recent years. Along with low-income women, young women have been particularly affected by these anti-abortion successes: Girls have limited financial resources, so funding restrictions hit them hard; and parental involvement requirements in many states make it impossible for some young women to access services.

In response, the Pro-Choice Public Education Project (PEP) has developed its own media campaign aimed at raising young women’s awareness of the importance of maintaining abortion access. Having had a strong measure of success with subway and bus ads in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, PEP hopes to bring their voice to the same medium that has seen so much activity from the anti-abortion camp: television.

To do so, PEP produced “Old Guys”–two persuasive, high-quality commercials targeted toward 16- to 25-year-olds. In the spots, a phalanx of grim, graying, suited white men trail a young, biracial urban woman throughout her day, monitoring and correcting her every move. Lilith Fair-style background vocals provide a soundtrack for the woman’s troubled travels: When she drops her change into a street-corner soda machine and reaches for a can, they grab her finger and guide it to their favorite cola. As she enjoys a TV program they barge in, seize the remote, change the channel. She can’t even duck them in a hip clothing store, where they follow her through the racks until she finds a fashionable blouse that suits her tastes, only to have them shake their heads, ever somber, and hand her what appears to be a maternity dress.

A powerful voiceover drives the point home: “You wouldn’t want some old guys in Washington making choices for you–then why are you letting them make the most important choice of all? Fight for your right to a safe and legal abortion–while you still have it. It’s pro-choice or no choice.”

It’s a strong message, offering a perspective not often heard on network television. Unfortunately, this message is as hard to find on TV now as it was before PEP created their commercials: ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox have all rejected the “Old Guys” spots. DeVito/Verdi, the ad agency that produced them, also pitched the spots to network affiliates in New York and California, with scant success. To date, DeVito/Verdi’s persistent pitching has only gotten the spots air time in one outlet–Fox‘s San Francisco affiliate, KTVU.

All four networks’ rejection explanations were brief, and similar: “Advocacy” ads and “controversial” commercials are not considered appropriate for network television. A typical letter from ABC‘s standards and practices department stated simply, “We don’t take the discussion of controversial issues of public importance in ads or PSAs.”

An “approval withheld” note from CBS‘s Program Practices Commercial Clearance Report was a bit more detailed: “CBS policy precludes accepting commercials which take an advocacy position on one side of a controversial issue of public importance. Because these commercials take an advocacy position on the subject of abortion, they are unacceptable for broadcast on the CBS television network.”

Yet both of these networks have aired DeMoss’ “Life” ads.

Choice is not a “value”

In an excellent commentary on the hypocrisy behind network rejection of PEP’s ads, Business Week‘s Joan Oleck asked (4/28/00): “But isn’t the pro-life stance a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance?”

The answers to this question were alarming. NBC told Business Week that the DeMoss commercial “was not a proselytizing ad.” A spokesperson justified ABC‘s double standard by saying that DeMoss’ campaign “spoke of values,” while another ABC representative explained to the Village Voice (6/20/00) that the network’s “broadcast standards department felt like the DeMoss ad was not taking a position on a controversial issue.”

Ads that equate unborn fetuses with living children aren’t taking a position on controversial issues? Taglines like “Life. What a Beautiful Choice” funded by groups who hope to “change hearts and minds of viewers” aren’t proselytizing?

To PEP director Marion Sullivan, this skewed rationale stings. “What are pro-choice ads about if they are not about values?” Sullivan asked Extra!. “Ultimately feminism is about giving women a choice, because they know what’s best for their bodies.”

While Ellis Verdi, the producer of PEP’s ads, expected a bit of resistance here and there, he is shocked at the networks’ across-the-board rejection of “Old Guys.” “Choice is a more complex concept to communicate than saying, like DeMoss did, ‘Look at these beautiful kids–aren’t they wonderful?’ Our spot may look a little more inherently controversial because we mention the A-word, but we’re just trying to portray our point of view, like the other side is presenting theirs,” Verdi said.

Whether ABC believes the pro-choice position is or is not grounded in “values,” the networks’ responsibility is to air reasonable discussions from a variety of perspectives, and allow the public to make their own informed judgments. As Business Week‘s Oleck rightly stated, “If the networks applied their own free-speech principles fairly, they’d have little reason not to air the ads.”

Unequal playing field

“It seems fair to think we would be able to influence the debate using media,” Sullivan said. Instead, “the other side has access to communication vehicles we don’t…. It’s not an equal playing field.”

PEP’s inability to compete on the commercial landscape is all the more glaring considering that news outlets rarely allow reproductive rights advocates to define the terms of the abortion debate. Rather, coverage often reduces choice supporters’ views to brief or angry soundbites, typically responsive in nature. PEP’s ads represented an opportunity for advocates to offer an unapologetic, self-defined message to the public. In a media climate dominated by commercial interests, it is striking that organizations favoring women’s reproductive rights cannot even purchase time to contribute their points of view to a debate of social importance.

The judgment calls to deny airtime to PEP were arbitrary at best, and censorious at worst. In branding a strong pro-choice message as “advocacy,” while OKing strong anti-abortion messages, the networks have defined their station politics as anti-abortion by default: They’re saying television can be utilized as a battleground in the push “to change hearts and minds” of viewers about abortion–but only by its opponents.