The Right to Choose Ads

The Battle Over Abortion Doesn’t Hit the Airwaves

The Pro-Choice Public Education Project is trying to reach out to the 90210 crowd. PEP is the group behind those subway and bus ads that show a coat hanger with the tag line "When your right to an abortion is taken away, what are you going to do?" Now the group has produced a TV spot called "Old Guys." In it, a hip-looking young woman is trailed by three white men in suits while Portishead plays in the background. The old guys hijack her remote control, pick which soda she gets from a vending machine, and veto the beaded shirt she selects from a clothing rack, replacing it with a dowdy maternity dress. Lest anyone miss the point, a female voice spells it out: "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?"

The right to choose an abortion is still, of course, in the hands of women. But decisions about which ads make it onto our television screens are left to the discretion of media execs. And said execs at the New York affiliates of NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX all rejected the Old Guys spot, produced by the DeVito/Verdi agency in Soho. "We don't take on the discussion of controversial issues of public importance in ads or public-service announcements," explained a typical rejection note from Harvey Dzodin, ABC's vice president of commercial standards.

Well, the local channels certainly haven't taken on this particular side of this controversial issue of public importance. But both New York City's ABC and CBS affiliates ran an ad paid for by the antiabortion DeMoss Foundation. The DeMoss tag line, "Life: What a Beautiful Choice," was about as subtle as the one in the Old Guys campaign, "It's pro-choice or no choice."

According to ABC spokesperson Susan Sewell, the distinction between the ads had to do with style rather than substance. "The broadcast standards department felt like the DeMoss ad was not taking a position on a controversial issue," explains Sewell, who says the DeVito/Verdi spot was closer to advocacy.

The PEP spots are certainly unapologetic. While pro-choice ads past have taken the "every child a wanted child" approach in an attempt to rival the beaming babies from the other side, the DeVito/Verdi ad grapples with the decidedly less cuddly idea of choice, and urges viewers to "fight for your right to safe and legal abortion" during a Senate campaign in which the issue is figuring heavily.

Such a limit-pushing strategy isn't wholly unexpected from DeVito/Verdi. This is the same agency behind the New York magazine ads the mayor tried to ban and Hillary Clinton's "Not Just the First Lady" campaign commercial. Characteristically, DeVito/Verdi's president, Ellis Verdi, resists the idea of changing the ads in any way to get them on the air. Instead, Verdi says he is considering pitching them to channels 9 and 11 as well as intensifying his efforts to win over stations that have already rejected the ads.

There is reason to believe Verdi may get his way. In response to DeVito/Verdi's persistent efforts in San Francisco, the only market other than New York where the company has pitched the campaign, the local FOX affiliate there recently began running the Old Guys spot. And the ad shop ultimately prevailed when the Metropolitan Transit Authority refused to run the PEP bus and subway posters more than two years ago. The MTA did an about-face after former state attorney general Robert Abrams intervened on the company's behalf.

This time, it's unlikely that lawyers will have much sway. While television stations are required to accept ads from both sides of political campaigns, they have every legal right to reject issue ads they don't find appropriate. But even if the old guys don't make it onto the airwaves, Verdi has now added another outraged message to his repertoire: "Consumers should understand that the choices are made by some executives."

slerner@villagevoice.com

 
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