The We campaign, launched by Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection last spring, has already attracted a lot of attention with its ironic “couch commercials,” showing diametrically opposed personalities, such as Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich, agreeing on the need to reduce globe-warming greenhouse gas emissions. But you won’t get a chance to see one of its latest ads—at least not on ABC.
The television network declined to run a spot, called Repower America, that We had wanted to run during the September 26 installment of 20/20, but which ABC determined was too controversial. Keeping with the $300-million We campaign’s efforts to enact global-warming legislation [full disclosure: I covered its launch for On Earth magazine, a publication of the National Resources Defense Council], the ad promotes renewable energy, but spends slightly more than half of its thirty-second duration deriding the fossil fuel industry’s influence on Washington. As images change from windmills and solar panels to windmills and refineries, a voiceover says:
The solution to our climate crisis seems simple. Repower America with wind and solar. End our dependence on foreign oil. A stronger economy. So why are we still stuck with dirty and expensive energy? Because big oil spends hundreds of millions of dollars to block clean energy. Lobbyists, ads, even scandals. All to increase their profits, while America suffers. Breaking big oil’s lock on our government, now that’s change. We’re the American people and we approve this message.
The ad is currently available on the We campaign’s Web site, next to a petition that urges readers to write to the network and ask that the ad be allowed to run. As of this writing, 186,297 people had sent a message, up from about 160,000 just a few hours earlier. But ABC seems unlikely to relent. A spokesperson for the network declined to comment on the decision not to run the ad, offering only the official statement that:
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.
ABC also refused to provide a copy of its advertising guidelines; a response that the We campaign received from the network offers a bit more explanation, however:
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.
Just as the ad transitions from promoting renewable energy to lambasting the fossil fuel industry, the Capitol building appears for about one second, with the message “Big Oil spend hundreds of millions to block clean energy” laid over it.
At this point, it’s difficult to tell what to make of the affair. We’s ad is clearly more controversial than those that it has previously run. On the other hand, it is hard to see how ABC’s recommendation to replace the image of the Capitol with one that “is not of another national building or monument” would change that. According to We spokesperson Giselle Barry, ABC’s complaint is “ridiculous” and the campaign has no intention of changing the image or any part of its ad.
“Oil and coal ads were all over all of the networks, ABC included. Chevron, Exxon, BP, clean coal. So, for them to run those kinds of ads, but not run ours, is a bit outrageous,” she said. “Our ad is straightforward. It makes the case that oil companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to block the switch to clean and renewable energy. These are just the facts.”
Furthermore, Barry added, CNN, MSNBC, and CBS have all run the exact same ad. To be fair, those ads lack are almost entirely apolitical and don’t attack any competitors in the course of promoting their product. But many, such as David Sassoon at his Solve Climate blog, have argued that the frequency and ubiquity of those ads, especially during primetime presidential election coverage, makes them just as controversial as anything produced by the We campaign.
It is a very reasonable argument. Indeed, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity is sponsoring CNN’s election coverage during a campaign in which energy policy has been and continues to be one of the most central and fiercely debated issues (a collection of the ACCCE’s ads is available here). And all the big oil companies are doing their best to burnish their (often questionable) “green” credentials with an absolute onslaught of pro-environment advertising.
Calls to the advertising and public relations departments of CNN, MSNBC, and CBS were not returned today, but it’s worth asking about current industry standards for vetting controversial political advertising, and whether or not such advertising jeopardizes the credibility of their news reporting. Please stay tuned: CJR will have more on this next week, once we are able to speak with representatives of the networks and cable TV stations.