Control, Control, Control: Advocacy Advertising and Public Relations
By Marc H. Rosenberg
The Washington Post
October 10, 2002
At the Washington Post, we are very much aware of the growth in public policy advertising. As perhaps the world’s largest marketplace for this, we try to be not just in front of it but in the middle of it as well.
What we are going to discuss today is the role of paid advertising in the public policy dialogue. I know folks in this room are all hoping to be part of that public dialogue about issues, about the world. And whether you’re going to be reporting for a news organization, conveying information in the public relations world, working for the government in an information capacity or maybe mucking about in the advertising business…all of it is about communications. So what we are going to talk about today is where paid advertising fits into that picture and specifically where advocacy advertising comes into play.
There is a growing convergence — I used to say a coming convergence, but it’s now a growing convergence — between advertising which is sometimes referred to as paid media and public relations which is euphemistically referred to as earned media.
(You know, I thought about this the other day. How come the public relations business gets a better euphemism? And then I realized, well, that’s public relations.) Anyway they come together in the advocacy arena.
Let me explain. I used to go out and give speeches to public relations types explaining the interplay between paid media and earned media. I don’t have to do that anymore. It’s not necessary because they’ve got it now. There are lots of examples. I’m going to give you some great examples from the pages of The Washington Post and from other newspapers where the earned media and the paid media work very, very closely together.
I am not here to tell you that the only way to go is advertising. Obviously, I am fond of that medium. I earn a living in it. But I don’t believe in relying solely on just one way of reaching the public. Any one single medium has its advantages and its disadvantages. I think that any good public communications campaign really must use multiple media. Obviously, you’re going to be constrained by whatever the resources are that are available to you, but to the extent that you have the resources, you are a fool if you are not using multiple channels of communication.
Paid media and earned media do not compete with each other. They complement each other. We will be looking at some examples of successful campaigns where the two work together. But first, I am going to review the risks of the old school of public relations, the risk of relying solely on earned media.
Problems with Earned Media
Here is the fundamental problem: the news hole is tight and getting tighter all the time. I’ve been saying this for maybe five years, and it’s still true. It’s still tight, and it’s still getting tighter. There are fewer minutes devoted to real news on television.
Turn on your TV news program. You’ve got commercials, weather, sports, lottery results, soft features, human interest stories…Some dog gets caught in a well someplace, and there’s three minutes of news. There are fewer and fewer minutes of television that are left for actual reporting of news.
Similarly, newspapers shrink. First, they shrank back in the mid 90s. They have temporarily shrunk again due to slumps in advertising revenue. But more importantly, the number of stories that are covered has shrunk. Not just the size of the paper but the number of stories on the news budget has shrunk.
Major newspapers are evolving. They have learned that they really cannot compete against broadcast, or against the Internet to break news. If the story is happening at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, you do not wait until the next morning’s newspaper to find out about that story. So the major newspapers have evolved in recent years to where their major focus — where they put their big resources — is on explaining the news, investigating stories, doing big feature length explorations of things. That’s what they get awards for; that’s what readers come to them for.
The consequence of this is that newspapers are perhaps printing the same number of column inches, but they are covering fewer stories. Those stories that they cover they do in much greater depth. If you are out there trying to get your story into the paper, there are fewer opportunities for you because there are that many fewer different stories that they cover nowadays. That’s the bottom line. Fewer stories get into the newspaper and there is much more competition for the news space that’s there.
The second problem with relying on earned media is that there are an infinite number of external factors beyond your control. I refer to this as the risk of sudden death. You may have a compelling news story. You can be putting on the world’s best press conference. You can follow the textbook to the letter on how to run a successful press conference. Every news organization in town is promising to come.
But you are still at the mercy of a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, some lunatic gunman going nuts in the suburbs, or some sex scandal involving one or more interns.
It brings you right back to the original problem, competition for space and attention.
Your press conference will lose out to sex or violence any day. I guarantee it.
Monica Lewinsky, Chandra Levy, those stories devastated the local PR industry. The terrorist attacks on 9/11, homeland security, these will eclipse almost anything else on the agenda. And you cannot predict when the next incident will occur. There is a chance that it will happen on the day that you are holding your press conference or the day it was supposed to be in the paper.
The third problem: The news media have a very short attention span. There is nothing worse than old news. This sometimes works to your advantage, if it’s a story that’s been out there for a while and they have already covered the top of the story, and it’s still got legs. I’ll give you as an example the health care debate in this country which went on for several years during the Clinton administration. It would disappear for a while, then somebody would be turned away by an HMO and the story came back again.
A story like that which goes on for a long, long time is very difficult for the news media to handle. It might be to your advantage if you are somewhere below the headline level of that story and at some point they’re looking to refresh it. They want a new angle, and you come along and you’ve got some little nuance.
A more likely scenario, though, is that the issue is still there and your client still has that problem, that issue. The news media just don’t want to talk to you anymore.
They’ve done that story already. They’ve been there. They’ve done that. They’ve written about it. They want to move on. They want something new. They want something fresh.
And so when you come in to talk to the editor about your issue which has not been resolved yet… well, you know how it is.
Let’s take, for example, Social Security. Have you heard anything about the Social Security Trust Fund lately? Has that problem been solved? And yet if you go in to talk to an editor about that story, what response do you get? Well, didn’t they give you 30 seconds on that last week? Didn’t that story run in the Metro Section a month ago?
You want them to do it again, but the phrase “old news” keeps popping up.
Fourth problem: If you rely solely on earned media coverage, you run the risk that reporters and editors may not share your opinion about the significance of your story. This will come as a shock to some of you. It certainly comes as a shock to many clients that their story is not the most important item of the day, because to them it is.
However, what is the most important story in your life may not be a big deal to an editor, particularly if we go back to my original point which is the competition for the news hole. No matter how important that story is to you, it may not be as important as whatever else is on the editor’s desk at that moment. There is always someone else competing for the reporter’s attention, for air time, and for a portion of the paper.
Relative importance determines not only what gets covered, it also determines how and where. So there is no guarantee even when the reporter comes out and records the story. There is no guarantee that it’s going to be on the front page or at the top of the hour or even that it will run on the day that you think it’s going to run.
The fifth factor you need to keep in mind as you’re thinking about earned media is that your message can get garbled. The story may not come out the way you had planned. Reporters come to the event to cover the story. They may or may not write what you say. They may not report it the way you said it. And maybe the protesters out on the street in front of your press conference turn out to be a more interesting story or better video than what you have to say. You might become a sidebar to somebody else’s story.
So, you’ve held the press conference. You’ve issued the press release. It’s out of your hands at that point. Now, I understand you have lecturers coming in here who are gurus of public relations. They tend to view this as sort of the Great Creator Theory.
They have these great ideas like they’re the Cosmic Clockmaker and they set events in motion and watch them unfold.
Personally, rather than the Great Creator or the Clockmaker, I prefer the paper airplane model. That is, you take the press release and you fold it up into a paper airplane and sail it out the window and it goes where it goes. You really don’t have much control over it after it has left your hands.
Control, Control, Control
Okay, now, let me make the case for using paid media, also known as advertising. In real estate, there are three factors that determine the value of your property. They are location, location and location. In advertising, there are three factors that determine the value of the paid media. They are control, control and control.
You control what you say in the message. It’s your ad. You can put what you want in that ad and it says it just the way you want it to. You have control over where and when the message appears. If you want it up front in the newspaper, in a prominent position to make news, just tell us. We’ll quote you a price and you can have it. You get control over how often and for how long the message is delivered. And this is a really crucial difference versus earned media. If you’ve got a message and an issue and you want that message to stay out there during the lifetime of the issue, there really is no effective alternative to paid media. That’s how you keep it in the forefront day after day, week after week, month after month.
The news media deliver two different streams of messages simultaneously to the same audience. You should always keep this in mind. If you have news coverage produced by the reporters and editors; that’s the earned media coverage that you hope to get. And you have advertisements which are paid messages that are delivered through exactly the same means to exactly the same audience that news is reaching.
One channel is speculative. You hope that the reporters will come to the press conference. You hope the editors will give prominence to your story. You hope that they will run it the day you intended. The other channel you have complete control over.
Why would you limit yourself to one when you can have both?
There is an interesting phenomenon that occurs, and this is what we’re really going to focus on today. That is the interaction between the two channels, between the earned media and the paid media. Let’s talk now about how a well-designed, highimpact ad or advertising campaign can itself make news. Paid media can earn free media. It will generate news coverage for you. Advocacy advertising is a wonderful place to observe this because it really has to be very focused, very refined, and cost effective. I’m going to show you some interesting examples of it.
So let’s talk for a moment about advocacy advertising. It really got started in earnest back in the 1970s. Mobil Oil ran public policy ads back in the 70s. A guy named Herb Schmertz was the legendary head of communications for Mobil Oil Company.
During the energy crisis at that time, Mobil was frustrated. Their message just wasn’t getting out.
Why? Well, they were just another oil company. You could get a quote from any one of a dozen oil companies. If you ran a quote from Texaco, you didn’t need a quote from Mobil. Also, there were lots of other voices out there. The government had its opinions about the energy crisis, consumer groups had theirs. Everybody had opinions.
So Mobil was just one more voice out there. They were having trouble getting a consistent message out to the media and the public. And then, it finally dawned on Herb Schmertz: “Why not just buy a piece of the newspaper whenever we have something to say, and by gosh, we’ll say it. It’ll be there in the paper just the way we want it to be.”
And that was the first advertorial campaign. Mobil Oil, starting in the 1970s.
It’s always difficult for us on the advertising sales side to assess the impact of a campaign because we never know exactly what the client wants to achieve. We don’t always know what they hope to accomplish or what their secret agenda may be. Usually what we’ll say to them is, “We’ll deliver the audience, you deliver the message.” If we don’t even know what it is the advertiser wants to have happen, it’s hard to tell whether it’s working or not.
One indicator of whether the Mobil campaign worked was that it first ran in the 1970s. It continues today. In fact, Mobil was acquired by Exxon two years ago and we now have ExxonMobil advertorials running every other week in The Washington Post.
I’m not saying that Exxon bought Mobil just so that they could acquire the campaign, but clearly somebody in that company believes that this continues to fulfill a communications need.
The advertorial style that Mobil started also lives on, not just in the ExxonMobil campaign, but over the years we had other advertorial campaigns, very similar quarter page units from other companies speaking their minds. Microsoft, MCI, EDS… The Electronic Data Systems company has a very successful, very discreet campaign that they’ve run over the years.
Currently on the pages of The Washington Post, the American Federation of Teachers runs an advertorial column once a month. The Educational Testing Service runs an advertorial campaign. Dearest to our hearts, the National Education Association has been using our Sunday Outlook section for 15 years to run quarter page advertorials on a regular, consistent basis. Corporate America and major advocacy organizations seem convinced that this works.
So, 20 years after Herb Schmertz, we are into the 90s. 1993 really is a watershed year. It’s a year when public policy advertising came of age, not necessarily because that’s the year that I got into the business, but more likely because the Health Insurance Association of America decided to respond to the Clinton administration’s health insurance initiative.
This was a period when, from the perspective of the health insurance industry, our country had a dangerous flirtation with socialized medicine. They thought it necessary to save the country from this impending evil. Who comes to the rescue? Harry and Louise. Ten years since Harry and Louise, and we still remember their names. Not a bad ad campaign.
Instead of insurance executives in pinstriped suits, the insurance industry sent out as its spokesmen a professional actor and actress who portrayed Middle Americans sitting at their kitchen table worrying about how government bureaucrats are going to keep them away from their beloved family doctor. One generation after Marcus Welby, the memory was still there.
Most of the money that was spent on this campaign was spent on television but they did run some print ads, also featuring Harry and Louise.
This campaign really marked the first time that true political techniques were used in public policy advertising. We’re talking about polling. We’re talking about focus groups. And it’s not an accident that this campaign, the Harry and Louise campaign, was created by Goddard Clausen. They are headquartered out in Malibu. Until this time, they had specialized in political campaigns. They were doing the candidates’ advertising. For this occasion they got into public policy communications, but they brought the techniques with them from political campaigns.
The other interesting point about this is that it illustrates very well the use of paid media to stimulate news coverage. The perception is that this was a national campaign; that Harry and Louise were in every market; that the insurance industry spent vast sums of money to beat down the Clinton initiative. None of that is true. This was not a national campaign.
The Harry and Louise campaign was run in spot markets, in very cleverly selected markets, probably not more than a dozen in various states. They were chosen either because those markets were deemed to be key political swing areas or, more likely, because the Congressmen or Senators in those markets held key positions in the Congress in the upcoming legislative debate over healthcare.
What the insurance industry did with the Harry and Louise campaign is that they took the commercials and ran them when Congress was adjourned. Let’s say it’s August when Congress goes home. If they wanted to reach John Dingell, who was then chairman of the House Commerce Committee, they would run these commercials on television in Detroit because that’s where John Dingell was in August. He was home with his constituents in Detroit.
September comes around, and he returns to Washington. They go dark in Detroit and start running commercials in Washington and start putting ads in The Washington Post. And John Dingell thinks, “Oh my God, they’re everywhere. No matter where I turn, I see those commercials.”
The congressional leadership troops down to the White House and says to the President and Hillary — maybe I repeat myself — they say, “You’ve got to respond.
Those commercials are everywhere. They’re killing us. You’ve got to do something about this.” So, what do we have? The President of the United States in a press conference attacks these terrible commercials.
Then, as if that’s not bad enough, he and Hillary go to the Gridiron Club, get dressed up in costumes and do a skit parodying the Harry and Louise campaign. Now, how does the news media cover this? How do they explain the President’s behavior to the 80 or 90 percent of the public who had never seen a Harry and Louise commercial?
Well, they have to run the Harry and Louise commercial to explain why the President is doing these things and responding the way he is responding.
Kathleen Hall Jamison, who is still the head of the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania, did a fascinating case study of the Harry and Louise campaign. She estimated that the amount of earned media, the ratio of earned media to paid exposures was 15:1. I think she probably greatly underestimated that ratio because I think she also assumed this was national spending and not spot market spending. Either way, that’s pretty good bang for the buck.
Okay, health care reform, that’s pretty serious business. What about Hooters, the restaurant? They are noted for more than their hamburgers and buns. You may have noticed if you have ever been to one of their restaurants that you go there and you are served by Hooters Girls. There are no Hooters Guys serving in those restaurants.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission noticed this, too. And so in 1995 they launched an investigation of the Hooters Restaurant chain alleging that there was a pattern of discriminatory employment in that they were only hiring Hooters Girls.
The owner of Hooters felt that Hooters Guys might change the nature of their business. How so, you might ask? In case you have no imagination, Hooters shared with the readers of The Washington Post their vision of the Hooters Guy complete with hot pants, hairy legs and a tank top.
This was an earned media jackpot. Hooters followed up the ads in The Washington Post with local press conferences around the United States. What they did is they organized press conferences where they had chorus lines of Hooters Girls who were joined by a lifesize cardboard cutout of the Hooters Guy. You can imagine how difficult it was for local television to resist that particular visual. At last they had a legitimate reason to do stories about Hooters Girls … and Guys. You couldn’t do the story if you didn’t also tell the story of the Hooters Guy.
Now, remember, another benefit of paid media is you have control over the timing of your message. That’s the other thing I want to talk about in this particular case.
The ad campaign was created by the public relations firm of Powell-Tate, which is run by two former White House media wizards. Powell-Tate ran the ads in late 1995 and they timed it so that the ad would hit in the middle of the shutdown of the United States government during the budget impasse between Newt Gingrich and the Clinton administration.
Reporters on the government beat were trying to cover a government that’s shut down and had been for the previous two weeks. They were looking for a new story.
Along comes the Hooters Guy. Guess what? Government agencies were shut down. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was unable to respond to these ads. Not only were they unable to respond, they were unable to answer their telephones. Their employees would be violating the law if they were to talk to reporters during the time when the government was shut down and these ads are running.
The campaign ran for two weeks before there was a federal official who was even allowed to respond to the story. By then the news cycle had long since passed.
The story had run unopposed. The EEOC had their brains beaten in by this ad campaign. Two years later, the commission chairman retired from office. He was interviewed by a news magazine and they asked him about the highlights of his career at EEOC; what did he accomplish and what did he regret? He said that in his tenure at the Commission he had only one regret and that was, he said, “I sure wish we hadn’t taken on Hooters.”
Okay, speaking of sex, implied or otherwise… Do you remember Bob Packwood, the randy Senator from Oregon? As the Senate Ethics Committee was preparing to do their job regarding the sexual harassment charges against him — which is a polite way of saying they were getting ready to bury those charges and sweep the issue under the rug until after the next election — an ad appeared on the Federal Page of The Washington Post.
This was a quarter page ad. It ran once. It ran in only one newspaper in America. It was placed by Mandy Grunwald, who is a political consultant, she mostly works for Democrats and she mostly does television. The principal text of her message was: “If your boss stuck his tongue in your mouth, would he keep his job? Only in the United States Senate.”
She placed this one ad. She got tons, I mean tons of earned media. It was the top news story every half hour on CNN for 24 hours. That evening it was, if not the lead, it was a top news story on every evening news program in America. Grunwald was on Night Line that night with Ted Koppel. She was on every talk show in America within a week. Every time she went on, they showed the ad and then asked her to talk about it.
Interestingly, the entire ad was just text, no graphics. That was somewhat surprising to us when it came in because we got an order for an ad from Mandy Grunwald who was noted for the television she creates. With her, wow, we could just imagine what kind of visuals she was going to have about Bob Packwood’s sexual harassment charges. It turns out that the lack of a picture works. My wife is a psychiatrist, so I’ll use a technical term. What you had was a kind of a Rorschach test. The viewer sees what he wants and can read into that a great many things. Your mind fills in the blanks. What does your boss look like? “Picture your boss here” is what this ad says.
There was, literally, a bottom line. The text on the bottom line said, “Join our fight. Call Bob Dole. Demand public hearings.” It was a clear call for action. You read the ad. You are outraged. What do you do? The ad tells you what to do. We know that they did that because Dole’s office was besieged, just thousands of telephone calls. At the moment, by the way, he was getting ready to run for President of the United States, and so he was in an unusual position. Most Senators, if you got a call from Montana and you are the Senator from Kansas, you know, you’d just hang up on them. But if you’re running for President, everybody is a potential voter. You can’t hang up on them Dole had to forward those calls to every other office in the Senate and so the switchboard was just jammed for days. It was a nifty trick. It was a way for him to be acutely aware of everybody else’s constituencies on that issue. Packwood ended up leaving the Senate in disgrace. The ad contributed greatly to that. The ad shaped the debate, forced the debate to happen is probably more accurate, but it also provided the language and the terminology for the debate. Mandy Grunwald framed the issue with this one ad and forced every Senator to deal with constituents who translated that into saying, “Hey, we don’t put up with that in our office, why do you put up with it in yours?” The answer obviously was you shouldn’t.
A little less dramatic but equally provocative… we’re going to talk about the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. This was launched in 1996 by Bill Novelli, who at that time was head of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. In a previous life he had been one of the founding partners at Porter Novelli, which is a well known public relations firm. With that background, it’s notable that this campaign relied almost entirely on paid media when it started and the earned media followed.
In a typical ad, the focal point was a picture of a kid who is smoking. All their ads featured young kids, cute kids, little girls with pigtails, little boys with baseball caps, each of them holding a lit cigarette. The image is jarring. It’s disturbing. You look at this, and you just know that it’s wrong.
The ads start running, people go to their elected officials, and they want to know, “What are you doing about this?” There were some ads on television but mostly it was a print campaign. It went on for about six months before the White House decided that they were going to have to get control of this issue. It had become such a public discourse and one where people were just demanding, “Where is the leadership?
Where are our public officials? How are they responding to this?” After six months of this paid media campaign, the White House adopted it as their own and took up the issue of underage smoking. This is a case where the leaders were following. What they were following was public opinion and public opinion was driven by this paid media campaign.
The Tobacco Free Kids ad campaign changed the political agenda. It became one of the leading issues in Washington for two years, through an entire election cycle.
Ultimately, their legislative program was derailed. It was derailed by two things. One, a counter campaign of paid advertising that was launched by the tobacco industry, somewhat belatedly but ultimately effectively.
But, more importantly, there was growing success by the state attorneys general in their multi-state litigation against the tobacco industry which resulted in billions of dollars of damages against the industry. It also resulted in a number of consent decrees in which the industry agreed to change their marketing practices, even agreed to fund a campaign to reduce underage smoking. So Tobacco Free Kids got high impact, terrific leverage on their very modest media investment.
The last item I am going to discuss in depth is another one-time ad. This one came from Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine. The time is October 1998 and we’re in the middle of the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton. Larry Flynt, pillar of the community, is upset by the hypocrisy in Congress. He was shocked, absolutely shocked, to hear the Congress taking on the President on the basis of the President’s alleged sexual improprieties. Basically, Flynt said, “Who are they to complain about Clinton?”
To make his point, he took out this ad in the Washington Post. Flynt wanted people to come forward to share with him information about illicit sexual encounters that they may have had with members of Congress or other high ranking public officials. And in order to encourage that, he offered a reward … one million dollars.
Hustler ran this ad exactly once. They ran it only in the Washington Post. Nowhere else, no other time. It cost them $85,000 for a full page, front part of the newspaper. It hit you right in the face when you opened up the Sunday paper. At this point in the debate, the public was bored, the reporters were bored with the impeachment debate. Monica Lewinsky had become old news. And then this ad appeared. It was a shot of adrenaline to the news media. It was chum thrown into the shark tank and the news media responded just like Flynt knew they would.
This ad appeared on a Sunday morning. That day on Meet the Press, Tim Russert opened the show by holding up the ad, then directing the discussion to talking about this ad and the implications of the message. CNN loved this story. There wasn’t a helluva lot else happening on a Sunday morning. They featured it for two days.
Reuters put it on the wire service on Sunday so that it was in Monday papers across the country. I came into the office on Monday morning and I had a stack of telephone messages on my desk from newspapers and television stations around the United States: Would we please send them copies of this ad so that they could print the ad or show the ad on television to accompany the story about what it was trying to accomplish? Think about this… Other publications calling us asking, “Please let us run copies of that ad at no charge so that we can then talk about how important that ad is.” Needless to say, our client was happy.
Let me tell you another story about the shelf life of this ad. This appeared in broadsheet, a full newspaper page. Internally at the Post we had to shrink it down to letter size, standard paper size, make copies of it and distribute it to everybody in the advertising department because we were getting so many phone calls from all over the United States from people who had heard about the ad but, of course, they didn’t get The Washington Post in their market. They couldn’t read the ad. They wanted to know could we please share with them conditions of the offer, the telephone number, how do they get this reward, etc., etc.
Obviously, Flynt got his money’s worth. Does anybody here remember Speaker of the House Bob Livingston? He never quite made it to his new office because in between being elected Speaker and taking office, Larry Flynt published this ad. Mr. Livingston decided to resign. Enough said?
Speaking of the Clinton impeachment trial, here is my personal favorite item.
Just before the Senate vote, The Wall Street Journal bought a full page ad in The Washington Post. In that ad they reprinted excerpts of their many editorials about the Clinton scandal and their views on impeachment. That ad ran on February 1.
That same day the New York Times ran a story that was headlined “The Wall Street Journal’s Washington Appeal.” The Wall Street Journal writes editorials. They then condense them, reproduce them and — wanting to make sure that the timing is just right, the audience is just right — they take the Wall Street Journal editorials, pay to have them published as an ad in the Washington Post and then sit back and watch the New York Times write a story about their ad. It doesn’t get any better than this. This is the trifecta.
But this is all ancient history. Let me give you some recent examples of ads that generate news coverage. I knew some weeks ago that I would come speak here and so I decided I should pull some recent examples out of the papers. You can tell these are recent examples, because the clippings haven’t turned yellow yet.
First of all, we are in the middle of political campaigns. All of you, as sentient human beings, hopefully you are aware that there are political ads being run in this community. Those ads in many cases are the focal point of news coverage about the campaign. I am not going to bore you with the infinite number of examples that occur. I’ll just give you two.
Here is the Washington Post, September 3, which runs a headline in the Metro section that says, “Glendening Ads Paint Schaefer as Bigot.” This one happens to be my favorite here because Glendening is the retiring governor of Maryland. He uses his leftover campaign funds from his own election to pay for ads attacking the incumbent comptroller of the state of Maryland. And they’re in the same party!
The next day, September 4, The New York Times in their main news section has a headline that reads “Candidates Ads Responding to Public Insecurity” and they devote a half page of the front section of the paper to analyzing how various candidates for the House of Representative and Senate are addressing the homeland security issue in their paid advertising.
Let me give you a few other examples here. On August 27, in the Wall Street Journal (again, the main news section on page 4) the headline says, “U.S. Chamber of Commerce Takes Its Tort Overhaul Campaign to Television.” A nice quarter-page story about the upcoming campaign the Chamber of Commerce is planning to run. It’s all about paid advertising.
In The Washington Post the next day, August 28, this time on page 2, we have a story that says “Infertility Campaign Cannot Get Ad Space.” It talks all about a campaign that deals with issues having to do with fertility. Someone is attempting to run ads in movie theaters in San Francisco, Boston and the District of Columbia and it discusses the ads and the issues surrounding the campaign that they are attempting to run. We’ll fast forward to September 24. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look instead at August 14. The Hill is a Capitol Hill tabloid. It covers politics and on page 3 here in what seems to be an obscure story, it says “Representative Boehner Finds Little Respite as Right to Work Pressures Him,” and they describe how the National Right to Work Committee is trying to get a chairman of a House committee to take action on a labor issue in Congress. They are doing that by running ads in his hometown district, and then the article says they are going to be running these ads in Washington when Congress comes back in session. So they’re following the Harry and Louise model, running first in local markets and then Washington, D.C.
And lo and behold, here we are a month later, September 24, and The Washington Post carries this big ad on page 5 which says “Tell Congress That Union Violence Against Hard Working Americans Must Stop.” This is the campaign that was referenced in the article that ran a full month before. So talk about being able to stretch out your campaign. Here they’re getting ink a month before they’ve spent their first dollar on paid placement of the ad in Washington.
That same campaign, by the way, was also referenced in an article in The Washington Post on the front page of our Business section on the 21st. That was five days before the ad actually appeared in print.
And then we have a double-header on September 26. We had The Washington Post and The New York Times both carrying stories reporting on a series of ads that are coming out from music industry stars. The headline says “Stars Come Out Against Net Music Piracy”
Here’s another New York Times story, this one on the front page of the Business section on October 9. The headline: “Viacom Plans Ad Campaign on AIDS.” It jumps to page 4 where they devote an entire half page here. This is really interesting. This is a half-page devoted to a public service campaign of unpaid ads. Viacom is going to be using unsold commercial space in their various media, particularly broadcast but also billboards, to convey their corporate concern about AIDS and to promote their AIDS awareness campaign. Their unpaid ads are earning media coverage. Here it’s a half a page in the New York Times. Pretty good.
Standards of Acceptance
Okay, let’s change the subject slightly and talk about standards of acceptance.
Are there any ads that we would not accept at the Washington Post? Yes, there are.
We do routinely check ads. Obviously it is in our best interest to come to terms with the advertiser. It is in their best interest to come to terms with us. So in most cases we do resolve these differences. But there are times when we finally conclude, no, we will not take that ad. This happens with some frequency.
What are the standards that we apply and how do we apply them? Well, first of all, we try to be very straightforward about this. There’s nothing tricky about any of the standards that we apply. The first one is that it must be clear who placed the ad and how the reader can reach that organization or that individual. This is our number one rule. It also is the one that is most frequently violated. Usually not consciously, but sometimes.
The philosophy that we hold to very, very strongly is it’s your opinion and you’re entitled to express your opinion, but the readers are entitled to know who you are and perhaps why you are expressing the particular opinion you have. It’s easier for our readers to understand what you’re saying if they know who you are.
We also require that readers be able to get in touch with the authors of a particular advocacy ad, partly because we want to get out of the middle. We don’t want them complaining to us if they’re not happy with the message in the ad. We’d rather that they complain to whoever wrote the ad.
Where we most often go astray here is organizations that are used to speaking to themselves or used to operating within a fairly close knit group who then have to speak to the general public. Sometimes they don’t make that transition well. So we end up with an ad from a union that says it was placed by Local 239. Local 239 of what?
Usually when we call up an advertiser like that and we say we think they ought to put the other half of their name in the ad, they will immediately comply. But there are times when we hear from some coalition that didn’t exist a week before they called us and will not exist a week after the ad runs. They would dearly love to get this message in the paper and they sure hope that nobody knows who put it there. Those are cases where we do some counseling with them and point out if they’re going to obscure the origin of the ad; it isn’t going to make it into the paper.
The second standard that applies is that the ad cannot be confused with news. It has to look different. It has to be clearly labeled so that the reader who is looking at the page can tell the difference between what The Washington Post news or editorial staff put in the paper versus what the advertiser puts in the paper. This gets back to the concept of two different channels that are operating side by side, and it has to be clear to our readers which channel you are in.
Again, it’s a pretty straightforward requirement. A few times we have encountered an advertiser who has been absolutely adamant that they won’t change the ad to look less like news and they won’t let us put a label on it identifying it as advertising. Generally those have been times where we think that they’re deliberately trying to confuse our readers, and we don’t tolerate that. So, again, we can either come to an agreement pretty quickly, or it becomes evident pretty quickly that that ad is just not going to run.
The third standard that is applied is that we impose the same rules for content on our advertisers as we do on ourselves. What this means is that we will not let an advertiser use language that we would not publish if our own reporters wrote it. We would not let advertisers use pictures or images in an ad that we would not allow on our news pages.
I will give you a real clear example of this. It came up a few years ago. The former Yugoslavia was in continuing turmoil and there was a debate over whether or not the United States would intervene in Kosovo to stop the slaughter of Kosovars there.
We were approached by a group here in America representing some expatriate Kosovars who had come into possession of photographs of a village after a slaughter had occurred there. And they wanted to take out a 2-page spread in our paper to share with the world this evidence of an atrocity that had occurred.
We took those pictures to our newsroom and said, “Set aside any issue of credibility. Let’s assume our own photographer had stood there and taken those pictures. Would we run these pictures with detailed close-ups of very dead people and put that in our newspaper?” The answer was, no, we would not. It just did not meet the standards we imposed on ourselves for publication in the Washington Post.
We went back to the advertiser and explained to them that we wouldn’t run those pictures. The message was fine. We would give them the placement they wanted, but they had to find alternative pictures.
They chose not to do that, not to change their ad. They ran it in a different newspaper. At the end of the day, at The Washington Post, everybody said, okay, it’s their choice. But it was our choice, too. Our choice was to walk away from that ad because it did not meet our standards for what we would publish. The fourth item is: whatever is in the ad must be accurate. We are going to give a considerable amount of leeway when the advertiser is clearly identified and has a clear point of view that they are expressing as their own opinion. When it comes to opinion we give them lots of leeway. When it comes to the information that they’ve generated out of their own research, we tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. If they say they conducted a study, and the study found whatever, if their name is on it readers can figure out what their point of view is.
However, if they are quoting someone else, if they are presenting information as established facts, then we will ask for documentation. We will ask to see copies of the documents that are quoted. If they say their opponents said something in a press conference, we will ask to see a transcript or the videotape, some evidence that it happened.
First and foremost is the legal issue of libel. Our lawyers don’t want us to be party to a libel, to a known falsehood. Second, there is an obligation to our readers. If it appears in our paper, there is a certain amount of credibility that we impart on whatever we put in front of our readers. And we want to make certain that what’s being published is accurate. If something is presented as a fact, we do go to some length to establish that the fact actually is so.
Finally, point five, we have what’s called the Breakfast Table Test which gets to that very vague and ill defined area known as taste. Not the taste of your cereal at breakfast but the taste that we show in publishing certain things. The Washington Post is in fact a family newspaper. Its circulation is primarily home delivery.
We do understand and we do expect that most of our readers have their first contact with the newspaper at their breakfast table in the morning, and we are sensitive to what we put in front of them while they are eating their cereal. And so there are times when we will say to an advertiser, “We’re sorry. We’re just not going to put that on somebody’s breakfast table in the morning.” This is kind of a vaguely defined area and it leads to differences of opinion with other newspapers.
Just to cite one example, the Wall Street Journal, for instance, generally is not home delivered, is not a breakfast table newspaper, and their standards for publication will be different in this area than ours.
The New York Times — probably you are aware that in the Washington Post we run a series of ads called Sex for Life which generates some reader feedback to us; if you look in the New York Times, those ads sometimes run with a different illustration. When the original illustration was submitted, we said, “Sorry, you can keep the headline but that illustration just isn’t going to appear in our newspaper.” So you will see different versions of that ad in different newspapers based on the standards of acceptance.
We tend to be a little less tolerant on taste questions than some other newspapers. On the other hand, we tend to have a much higher tolerance for political controversy than do other papers. We believe that our readers are accustomed to a rather vigorous political debate. And in many ways this makes our newspaper more interesting reading, seeing the dialogue that occurs in advocacy advertising on public policy issues.
Many times a politically controversial ad will run first in The Washington Post and then other papers will check in from around the country. Did we take that ad? What did our readers say? How did they react?
But we don’t run that kind of test. Our standards are very clear. We do have a considerable appetite for political controversy; less of an appetite for questionable taste.
But as you can see, we don’t reject ads just for being edgy. We do not reject ads for being provocative or controversial. Actually, those are some of our favorite ads.
Marc H. Rosenberg is advocacy advertising director at The Washington Post. This is the transcript of a talk he gave to the Communications Department of American University in Washington, DC.