Alternative TV ads upset the network static quo

By Steve Rhodes

The Guardian (the folded, leftist, New York based one) 7-31-91

A new group is challenging the five decade old corporate monopoly on public service television announcements with a series or alternative ads on safer sex, the environment, racism and reproductive rights.

Direct Impact, an Athens, Georgia based nonprofit organization sent out several or its spots via satellite on July 16, 1991 to the PSA Channel, making them available to 900 local stations and cable companies. Its first series of 30 and 60 second spots, produced under the name Direct Effect, was released in February 1990.

Unlike the Advertising Council and Partnership for a Drug-Free America - which dominate public service advertising on television - Direct Impact's ads seek to identify and confront underlying societal problems. In contrast, spots produced with corporate funding by tbe Partnership and the Ad Council attack individual behavior.

Tbe Partnership's anti-illegal drug campaign - featuring the image of a fried egg and the slogan, 'this is your brain on drugs' - was one of the three largest advertising campaigns of 1990, along with McDonald's and AT&T. The Partnership received over $300 million worth of free air time and print media advertising space in 1990. The Ad Council - known for the slogan "help take a bite out of crime" - received over $l billion worth.

Pro-choice PSA

But with a more dissident message and a limited production budget, Direct Impact has had a hard time getting their spots on the air. The three major networks and several cable outlets including TBS (Turner Broadcasting System) have either ignored the Direct Effect ads or rejected them because they said the technical quality wasn't good enough.

New York Daily News writer Jim Farber called Direct Impact's pro-choice spot the "best and most daring" of the original series of seven PSAs, but it has only been shown on local public-access cable shows.

Produced by Sassy magazine editor Jane Pratt, the piece features three women sitting in chairs talking about abortion. "My aunt had to resort to a coat hunger for an abortion." an older woman opens. A younger woman (actress Elizabeth McGovern) adds, "When I think about all the positive things I've been able to do with my life, I think ahout how different my life would be if I didn't have the option to choose a safe, legal abortion as a teenager." It enda with the tag line "pro-choice is pro-life."

Another spot by Tom Gilroy shows shots of an interracial couple talking and playing with their child. It ends with an image of the child and the words, "Love knows no color." One on chemical farming by Michael Stipe features fertilizer and pesticide falling to catchy music and covering a a plate with food. A voiceover says, "Wise up America, support organic farming."

Jason Kliot's "Right to Know" spot zooms in on various New Jersey factories with toxic waste sites while performance artist Laurie Anderson recites the following facts: three out of five people in the U.S. live where air quality doesn't meet federal standards; each year, 2,000 people in the United States die of cancer caused by poisons in the environment; and people have the legal right to know about toxic waste sites in their community.

"This is a condom" superimposes words like "rubber" and'"glove" over shots of condoms while a voiceover says that condoms can prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS. Direct Impact coordinator Jim McKay, a filmmaker, says this piece from last fall's series (the second) "is as much a challenge to media outlets as to viewers. In every series, we try to have one or two spots that really rock the boat"

Besides McKay, actor Tom Gilroy and REM's Michael Stipe coordinate the anouncements in association with C-Hundred, their film production company. Each spot had a budget of $2,000 and each series costs about $30,000 to produce and distribute. They are not made by advertising agencies - they are made by filmmakers, musicians, artists and writers who submit proposals. The group will send out more PSAs on the PSA Channel on the third Tuesday of each month and plans to release a third series in the fall of 1991.

Some of the spots have bees shown on MTV and E!, a 24-hour entertainment and news channel. They've received the most support from local music video shows and cable systems putting them on during their local commercial time. Tucson Cable in Arizona has aired the spots during its own commercial time on CNN, MTV, ESPN, USA and Lifetime. Andrew Zielinski of Suburban Cable in northern New Jersey also uses the spots during commercial time and on their community channel. He says their technical quality is "not a problem as long as they have a good message."

Over the past five decades, the Ad Council has developed guidelines requiring public service announcements to be non-partisan and non-political. "But the council's campaigns are, in fact, intensely, if subtly, political," wrote Keenan Peck in the May 1983 Progressive. "Council ads convey one theme: Personal charity can untangle any mess, solve any problem; collective or government action is never necessary in a land of good neighbors....the faith in charitable stop-gap measures as a substitute for structaral reform sustains the status quo and the entrenched position of American business."

"'Just say no to drugs,' but say yes to what?" asks McKay. "A basic tenet of raising a child is to stress the positive, not the negative."

Gilroy points out, "The very same people that tell someone not to use drugs would love for that person to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee and Coors." (The Partnership for a Drug Free America receives funding from Philip Morris which makes Marlboro cigarettes and Miller beer.) He adds, "The bottom line of an environmentotally conscious society and a consumer society are contradictory."

TV That Makes You Think

McKay says that in some of the PSAs - like the one about the sexual harassment a woman enperiences in one day (also made by Jane Pratt) - "a seedling idea is presented, with no specific directions on how to tackle it. This does something rare in television: It lets you think for yourself." Kliot adds, "A PSA has to bring people certain knowledge and lead them to act on that in only 30 or 60 seconds." Direct Impact received calls from 16 states in one week alone, as viewers' dialed the phone number listed at the end of the spots (even though it was not not a toll free call).

Donna Olsen, who ended her spot for the third series with the message, "Warning: Patriarchal values may be hazardous to your health." says she made it "to teach something and enlighten, not just present something old in a different way."

Village Voice advertising critic Leslie Savan wrote that the Direct Impact PSAs "are distinctly not in the usual Ad Council, voice-of-authority style...even when the spots are awkward - and they often are - the awkwardness can help to unglue the stuck, predictable relationships between images and ideas that TV has trained us on."

Direct Effect PSAs have won awards and have been shown in film festivals and at art galleries. The Long Beach County Museum in California showed Direct Impact's PSAs on the same program as the Twin Peaks pilot and Tanner 88, a poltical satire created by Gary Trudeau and Robert Altman for HBO.

Direct Impact has received enough proposals for a fourth series, but has stopped accepting ideas because of a lack of funds. The group hopes to raise the $10,000 it needs to finish and distribute the third series this fall. Up to this point, funding has come from profits on music videos and other films produced by C-Hundred. They applied to 40 foundations for grants, but have received only rejections so far.

"I think we should try to think of media and access to the media as a political issue," says Kliot. "I wish everybody could see the spots."

Steve Rhodes has also written on PSAs in Extra!, a publication of the media watch group FAIR. I'll hopefully get that piece (which was quoted in the New York Times and by Leslie Savan in the Village Voice) up someday. Jim McKay directed Girls Town.

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