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Newspaper advocacy advertising: molder of public opinion?

"... 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. 1, 1985, found that for-profit corporations and trade associations were responsible for 85% of them. Public interest groups and labor unions accounted for four percent.

In contrast, nonprofit and religious groups were responsible for 31% of all advocacy ads in 1989, while labor unions placed 11%. Additionally, nonprofit and religious groups comprised 75 of the total 187 sponsoring organizations.

A recent trend involves getting major companies to underwrite paid messages for nonprofit organizations. The latter usually produce the ads and give the company sponsor credit. In other cases, the business organizations provide plugs for the nonprofit causes in their own commercials. For instance, Marion Merrell Dow (makers of Nicorette) has worked closely with the American Lung Association on developing anti-smoking commercials.

In an attempt to examine the magnitude and diversity of advocacy advertising, The New York Times and The Washington Post were obvious choices to consider because they are among the most influential newspapers in the U.S. and carry the largest number of such messages. These publications are likely to best represent advocacy advertising as it currently is practiced.

Advocacy ads sponsored by two groups - for-profit organizations with their trade associations and nonprofit public interest organizations, including religious groups-were examined. This twofold attention was based on the fact that for-profit and nonprofit groups frequently have been adversaries in disputes involving major public policy issues. Moreover, for-profit groups have been among the heaviest users of advocacy advertising. Individual nonprofit groups do not possess the finances to mount major advocacy campaigns. As a class, though, they appear to represent a fast-growing category of sponsors responsible for an increasingly larger proportion of total advocacy advertising.

Considerable confusion and misunderstanding exist as to what constitutes advocacy advertising because, in a sense, all advertising is advocacy in nature. Moreover, even when the scope is narrowed by excluding messages that promote a sponsor's products and services, questions remain. Advocacy advertising must be separated from traditional public relations/goodwill advertising, public service messages, and public-interest "educational" advertising.

Advocacy advertising is part of the genre of promotion known as corporate-image or institutional advertising. Specifically, it is the sector concerned with the propagation of the sponsor's ideas and the elucidation of controversial social issues related to public policy. It involves defending or promoting the sponsor's activities, modus operandi, and/or position on controversial public policy issues, as well as changing the public perception of the sponsor's actions and performance. Taking advantage of constitutional safeguards for the freedom of speech, the sponsor is asserting its right to speak out on issues of public importance.

Out of 661 ads that ran during 1989, a typical year, 288 appeared in The Washington Post and 373 in The New York Times. They were sponsored by a total of 187 organizations. Forty-nine percent were placed by profit-making corporations and their supporting trade associations, constituting 38% of the 187 sponsors. Nonprofit social service groups and religious groups ran 30% of the ads, but accounted for 40% of all sponsors.

Almost one-third (32%) of the ads were one- or two-time placements by the vast majority (143) of individual organizations, indicating the contextual and temporal importance of these ads. About three-quarters of the sponsors were responding to immediate issues of extreme urgency - e.g., a pending piece of legislation or court action.

A handful of sponsors (44 organizations) accounted for more than two-thirds (68%) of the 661 ads. Further analysis shows that 11 sponsors placed 45 % of them. Mobil Oil Corp. led the list with 12%, followed by the American Federation of Teachers (eight percent). The average advocacy ad occupied half a page.

The content areas (e.g., issues, message tone) of the advertisements were evaluated by independent reviewers, who would read them and make a judgment as to which of several target audiences they were being addressed. Topics covered in 60% of the 661 advertisements related to a specific industry. These were sponsored by profit-making organizations, trade associations, and unions. The oil industry placed the most (12%), with Mobil Oil sponsoring 95% 6f the ads for this group.

Next in volume was the health care industry (seven percent), followed by defense, finance, and insurance, each contributing five percent of the year's total advertisements. When combined, these top five groups accounted for about one-third of the ads.

Other industrial sponsorship included pharmaceutical organizations (four percent), nuclear energy (three percent), and airlines (two percent). Most other industries only represented a fraction of one percent of total advertisements.

It would seem that the industries that employed advocacy advertising were active because they were facing important public policy issues - i.e., changes in defense spending, banking concerns, and health care and insurance costs. The oil industry was the only exception, dominated by the long-standing Mobil series.

Approximately 45% of the advertisements contained messages targeted to government. Ten percent addressed government in general terms, 15% attempted to motivate the Executive Branch, and 20% had messages for Congress.

The audiences varied greatly by sponsor type. For example, while 29% of the for-profit group had copy directed toward Congress, only two percent of trade union and 10% of nonprofit group ads were directed there. On the whole, nonprofit sponsors had less interest in government audiences, with about one-third of their ads targeted in that direction. By contrast, for-profit groups aimed approximately 60% of their message to government organizations.

Issues

The 661 advertisements covered 1,205 issues, separated into eight categories. Domestic and/or international economic and social welfare topics dominated, accounting for 60% of the total, followed by energy; pollution/conservation/environmental; political; international aid/human rights; consumer protection; and ethical/legal.

By far the most important primary objective was to get action - 53% of all ads were written to mobilize public action in support of a public policy advocated by the sponsor. However, there was a difference in sponsors' objectives. Eighty-three percent of nonprofit social service ads urged public action, while profit-making firms seemed more interested in improving the company's image and public credibility.

Each of the two papers surveyed published an average of one advocacy advertisement per day. Although 187 different organizations placed one or more such ads, 11 sponsored nearly half of them. Three - Mobil Oil, the American Federation of Teachers, and Partnership for a Drug Free America - were responsible for 25%.

Except for a few organizations with a long-standing program, advocacy advertising was utilized on an ad hoc basis, presumably with limited planning and forethought. Some 143 sponsors placed only one or two advertisements. Consequently, in terms of traditional advertising reach and frequency analysis, the vast majority of sponsors can expect very little long-term impact, even with full-page ads.

On the other hand, a sponsor could rationalize the use of advocacy advertising as a targeting instrument to influence specific groups at a given time. For instance, an advertisement in the Washington Post would be appropriate if the sponsor were interested in reminding certain Congressional representatives of their interest and influence at the time of a heated debate on a public policy issue.

It appears that use of advocacy advertising as a medium for education and information on a long-term basis is not expanding substantially. As a communications tool, it is being utilized primarily for immediate confrontational purposes. Nevertheless, if used properly, advocacy advertising can be an ideal medium for bringing ideas to audiences that must make public-issue choices in a democratic manner.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Society for the Advancement of Education
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Fram, Eugene H.; Sethi, S. Prakash; Namiki, Nobuaki
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:1815
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