By now, most everyone has probably heard how CBS refused to air the winning ad from MoveOn.org's "Bush in 30 Seconds" contest, in which the Berkeley-born advocacy Web site invited amateur filmmakers to produce TV spots that would give the president a giant and very public raspberry.
What's more interesting is that many of you have now seen the ad anyway. Chalk one up for the power of online organizing, which in this case did an end run around CBS to score a political touchdown.
First, the winning ad: Created by Denver's Charlie Fisher, "Child's Pay" was selected by more than 120,000 online voters from a pool of 1,500 submissions, and hardly seems like the kind of hit piece that would inflame network censors. It takes on the relatively unsexy issue of the national deficit, showing young children drudging away as assembly-line workers, janitors, and trash collectors, followed by the tagline: "Guess who's going to pay off President Bush's $1 trillion deficit?"
An effective ad? Definitely. Dirty politics? Not in the least.
But CBS still refused to air it, citing its '70s-era policy against selling airtime for the "advocacy of viewpoints on controversial issues of public importance." "We've rejected advocacy ads about NAFTA, gun control, abortion issues," says spokesman Dana McClintock. "That's on the right and on the left. It's a clear and consistent policy regardless of political persuasion."
MoveOn doesn't see it that way. The organization has accused CBS of selectively enforcing its own policies in the president's favor. "It's a real worry that you can't necessarily even buy free speech," says MoveOn cofounder Wes Boyd.
But if "Child's Pay" never made it to the Super Bowl, it was still readily available on the MoveOn.org site. Thanks to indignant chain e-mails and Web postings, word quickly got out about the dustup with CBS, and millions of people downloaded the ad. And unlike Super Bowl fans who may have been too busy scarfing bean dip to take any immediate political action, these viewers were already logged in, ticked off, and ready to do whatever MoveOn urged. It was every marketer's dream.
In the week following CBS' decision, MoveOn supporters sent more than 400,000 complaint e-mails to the network's corporate headquarters in Washington, DC. The office reportedly received so many phone calls on January 28 that its switchboard crashed. The ad was also a recruiting coup. MoveOn gained 140,000 new members that week alone, and once the national media caught wind of the controversy, the ad received far more airtime than the very costly thirty seconds it would have had last Sunday. It showed on both Good Morning America and Nightline the evening before the New Hampshire primary -- a huge night for reaching politically attuned viewers. Even CBS ended up running it as part of its news programming. It reached millions of viewers in a variety of time slots, without MoveOn having to pay a dime.
In fact, it all worked out so well for the advocacy group that CBS is subtly accusing it of deliberately starting the fight for PR purposes. "In recent years, a cottage industry has arisen among groups that submit advocacy ads that they know will be rejected," a recent CBS press release claims. "They then resort to press releases and Internet diatribes about the rejection that reap considerable free media attention and financial contributions."
The nonprofit insists it offered the ad in good faith. "There were certainly a lot of people who came to look at the ad they couldn't see on CBS -- and that's the effect censorship often has -- but we would have preferred to have it be part of the Super Bowl," says MoveOn campaigns director Eli Pariser. Founder Boyd also points out that MoveOn successfully placed an ad with one CBS affiliate during last year's Super Bowl, and that this year the word from CBS regarding "Child's Pay" was initially encouraging. "We had every reason to believe we could place it," he recalls. "The salespeople at CBS were open to it -- I don't think they'd sold all their spots. They saw a copy and said, 'This isn't bad, we'll give it a go. '"
When word came down from the network that the answer was no, Boyd says MoveOn spent two days calling CBS executives and asking them to reconsider. He adds that his organization was fully prepared to pay the $1.6 million tab for a fourth-quarter slot -- a bargain compared to the $1.9 million it paid last year to run a Medicare ad during the State of the Union address.
As for the charge that "Child's Pay" is too controversial, MoveOn organizers say their ad is far less shocking than some past Super Bowl commercials, which they consider sexually explicit (2003's Coors "Twins" ad) and violent (2001's trailer for Hannibal). CBS' own programming isn't beyond controversy, they point out -- just look at the bare-breasted half-time show. MoveOn says that CBS does in fact run advocacy ads, such as the White House ads that link drug use with terrorism. But CBS says airing antidrug ads simply isn't controversial. "CBS is unaware of responsible groups that advocate drug abuse and smoking by minors, so it is hard to understand how these laudable efforts would constitute 'controversial issues,'" its press release says. As for censorship, the network insists it's simply trying to maintain balance on political issues. "We don't want deep pockets to control one side," spokesman McClintock says.
MoveOn sees itself not as a "deep pocket," but a grassroots group. It currently represents 1.7 million people, and the fact that it got 1,500 people to create advertising spots for nothing -- and 120,000 to vote on them -- speaks both to the clout of Internet organizing, and the ease with which anyone with a camera, computer, and editing software can bust out a commercial. If this many people are willing to log on and sign a petition, donate money, or craft an angry letter to a network exec, MoveOn's organizers think the political and media elite should pay attention to their views.
"We find ourselves constantly surprised," Boyd says. "We think we know what people care about, and we're wrong." Who knew, after all, that the winning "Bush in 30 Seconds" ad would be about, of all things, the budget deficit? And who could have anticipated that MoveOn's other big crowd-pleasing move would have been its petition last spring protesting the FCC's attempt to relax rules limiting media ownership. "It just went wild," Boyd says. "The members of Congress were going, 'Where is this coming from? We've never seen this feedback on something we consider a wonky issue. '"
Boyd views the fight with CBS as a timely illustration of the problems raised by too-powerful networks. But in this case, the problem turned into a gift. The biggest favor CBS may have done for MoveOn is save it a bundle of cash. Last week the nonprofit announced that it had brokered an alternate deal with CNN to run the ad repeatedly, not just on Super Bowl Sunday, but for the entire week after that, all for a cool million. And does anybody remember all those dot-coms that spent their last pennies to wow us with snappy half-minute spots during the 2000 Super Bowl?
Yeah, neither do we.
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