Why won't ABC air that clean-energy ad?

ABC refused to air an ad from the Alliance for Climate Protection. How come?

By , Blogger for The Christian Science Monitor

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    A screenshot from the Alliance for Climate Protection's "Repower America" ad. The Alliance says that ABC refused to air the ad, claiming that this shot of the Capitol violated their broadcast standards.
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The Alliance for Climate Protection, a group founded by Al Gore, put together an ad touting the benefits of clean energy projects and attacking big oil companies for blocking their development. Have a look:

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The group says that they submitted the ad to ABC, paying $85,000 - $100,000 for the airtime. The plan was to have it air on Sept. 26, during 20/20. But that morning, the network rejected it.

In response, Cathy Zoi, the group's CEO, wrote a letter [.doc] to ABC-Disney honcho Anne Sweeney, defending their ad and blasting the network for running ads from fossil fuel companies:

This advertisement simply points out that the massive spending by oil companies on advertising and lobbying is a primary reason our nation hasn't switched to clean and renewable sources for our energy.  The assertions that our ad makes are factual, common sense and are needed in the national debate about our energy future.  Your viewers should not be denied the right to hear this point of view.
Your rejection is even more indefensible given the overwhelming number of misleading ads that the oil and coal industry have run on your network. This year alone, oil and coal companies and interests have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to convince the American people that they are focused on solving our energy and climate crises.  On its face, these assertions by oil and coal defy all reason.
In short, I am disappointed by the decision you have made regarding this ad.  I sincerely hope that you will reconsider this decision and air this important ad tonight.

ABC didn't. Instead they aired a different ad from the Alliance in that time slot.

The Alliance launched an email campaign Wednesday, urging supporters to petition ABC to reconsider their rejection. So far, more than 190,000 people have emailed the network.

But nowhere does the Alliance say what reasons the network gave for rejecting this particular ad. After all, ABC has other ads from the Alliance. Why did this particular ad get turned down?

I rang up ABC's Broadcast Standards & Practices department and got in touch with a spokeswoman, Julie Hoover, who said she couldn't really tell me much. "The situation is that ABC will not disclose the contents of its communications with its clients," she said. She then read a prepared statement: "All of our advertising is reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and the context of this particular ad was determined not to be acceptable per our policy on controversial issue advertising."

Ms. Hoover said that the network has written ad guidelines, but that they furnish them only to "relevant parties," a category that doesn't include me.

So much for that. I then spoke with Brian Hardwick, a spokesman for the Alliance, who told me that ABC says they rejected the ad because of a shot of the US Capitol. He forwarded me part of an email that they say they got from the network on the morning of the day the ad was scheduled to air:

Per our Guidelines, national buildings may be used in advertising provided the depictions are incidental to the advertiser's promotion of the product or service. Given the messages and themes of this commercial, the image of the Capital [sic] building is not incidental to this advertising. Please replace the image with one that is not of another national building or monument. Thank you.

"We thought it was odd," said Hardwick, who noted that the Capitol was only on screen for a second and a half and that no other network rejected the ad for this reason.

But if it really just comes down to a single shot, why not just tweak the ad and resubmit it? Hardwick says that doing so would take money and time, but it also comes down to a matter of creative integrity. "We made it the way we want to show it," he told me.

Fair enough, but it all makes me wonder if the Alliance is engaging in what Canadian anticorporate activist Kalle Lasn calls a "win-win strategy." In his 2000 book, Culture Jam, Lasn describes how activists can't lose by submitting controversial ads to major networks:

If you are able to buy time and get your ad aired, you win by delivering your message to hundreds of thousands of attentive viewers. If the networks refuse to sell you airtime, you publicize that fact. Now you have a news story (the media are always willing to expose a dirty little secret) that will prompt debate in your community about access to the public airwaves and perhaps draw more attention to your cause than if the networks had simply sold you the airtime in the first place.

Hardwick says that he would really prefer it if ABC just ran the ad they submitted. The publicity resulting from he dispute, he says, "is just a byproduct."

Update: The Alliance's We Campaign blog reiterates Hardwick's point:

It’s true that news and conversation about this controversy raises awareness of our message, and that can sometimes be a kind of advertising in itself.  But that was never our intent.  We didn’t imagine this ad could be viewed as controversial.  And we’d still prefer for the American people to see our ad. We’d still prefer that one of the world’s largest media conglomerates give Americans the opportunity to make up their own minds about the “controversial issue” of repowering America through renewable energy and rejecting our dependence on fossil fuels.

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