Magazine article USA TODAY

Newspaper Advocacy Advertising: Molder of Public Opinion?

Magazine article USA TODAY

Newspaper Advocacy Advertising: Molder of Public Opinion?

Article excerpt

"... If used properly, [it] can be an ideal medium for bringing ideas to audiences that must make public-issue choices in a democratic manner."

Even a casual examination of the newspapers in major metropolitan areas gives the impression that a wide variety of groups are using advocacy advertising. They utilize newspapers to espouse certain viewpoints, promote specific causes, or motivate individuals to engage in or refrain from particular activities. Public issue or advocacy advertising is neither new nor peculiar to the U.S., but is more widespread and practiced in its most vociferous form here.

The increased activity has been spurred by developments in the legal and political arena, as well as an evolution in the way public interest groups and social activists choose to communicate their messages. A changing competitive business environment also has motivated trade unions and companies to channel communications through advocacy advertising.

Early in 1990, in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Supreme Court rendered a decision that may impact the use of advocacy advertising. It upheld a Michigan law prohibiting corporations from using treasury funds for independent expenditures to advance or oppose political candidates. The Court clarified the limitations on the right of corporations to engage in free speech (e.g., place advocacy advertisements) by using treasury funds. It also reaffirmed its 1986 decision in FEC v. Massachusetts Citizens For Life, Inc. giving bona fide political organizations the right to engage in political speech and endorse candidates, but denying it to corporations. Now that the limitations have been clarified, more organizations may feel comfortable about using public issue advertising.

Other reasons for increased activity in advocacy advertising may be explained best through example. In the political arena, California state officials launched an aggressive anti-smoking ad campaign in the news media backed with a $28,000,000 budget raised through taxes on cigarettes. More states and cities are likely to follow. Leaders of ethnic groups, especially black organizations in inner-city locations, also have been fighting cigarette companies through billboard campaigns and other direct actions.

In the commercial arena, the chemical industry and various environmentally sensitive businesses have been supporting the "green movement" through advocacy campaigns. Nuclear power proponents, through the U.S. Council on Energy Awareness, have been promoting greater use of nuclear energy. Unions and businesses have warned the public in newspaper advertisements to be wary of foreign competitors.

Nowhere is the diversity of advocacy campaigns more apparent than in cases of highly controversial social issues involving activist groups. The efforts by pro-life and pro-choice organizations are but one example of this phenomenon.

Advocacy advertising by corporations and industries in the U.S. can be traced to 1908, the year AT&T launched a newspaper ad campaign to educate the public on the virtues of a private monopoly. Another big spurt came in the years immediately following World War II, when many companies launched campaigns to promote the free enterprise system and economic literacy.

Growth in advocacy advertising also occurred during the 1972-73 oil crisis, when the oil industry used paid advertising to explain and defend its "obscene" profits. With only some minor modifications, similar campaigns still are conducted today by a variety of industries and other groups.

The most notable change from the mid 1970s to mid 1980s was the diversity of groups opting for advocacy advertising. New users included organized labor; all types of voluntary private organizations; government and governmental agencies; and foreign governments and groups. A study of advocacy ads in The New York Times op-ed pages for the 18-month period beginning Jan. …

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