VANCOUVER - The Adbusters Media Foundation has told www.broadcastermagazine.com that it will soon launch a Constitutional challenge against Canadian private broadcasters demanding access to commercial air time.
Adbusters promotes such stunts as "turn off the TV week" and "buy nothing day" and has produced several television ads about their causes (which also go after tobacco companies, McDonald's and North American consumption in general). However, many broadcasters, not just in Canada but around the world, have been reluctant to air ads that tell people not to watch TV and to not buy anything.
So, the counter-culture group (which, from the material on its web site, appears to be generally anti-big media and anti-big business) has hired lawyer Clayton Ruby to represent them in this case which will be fought on the grounds the broadcasters are limiting freedom of expression.
"The premise of the case is that we should have the right to air our commercials the same as any other company," Tim Walker, campaign manager, Adbusters Media Foundation, told www.broadcastermagazine.com. It plans to file the case within a month, said Walker and pursue similar action in other countries after the Canadian action is finished.
Since the airwaves are public spectrum, as long as it has the money to air the ads and as long as they are tasteful and legal, broadcasters should have to air them, says Walker. All of the Adbusters' ads have been cleared by the Telecasters Committee.
"It shouldn't be up to these major corporations to decide what should and shouldn't air," said Walker. So far, CBC has aired many of its commercials, CTV and CHUM have aired the one skewering tobacco companies and the others that were approached (CanWest Global, Corus Entertainment and Alliance Atlantis) have turned them down flat, says Walker.
"We decide what runs on our air," said CanWest spokesman David Hamilton last week.
"We reserve the right to refuse commercial messages that are inconsistent to our business or disparage our business," said Corus spokeswoman Kerry Morgan. Alliance Atlantis declined to comment. (Since specialty services do not actually transmit over the public air, and instead are broadcast over private networks, one wonders whether or not those channels would be subject to this action.)
It's easy to see why at least one of the ads would not be aired by broadcasters. The spot which asks whether or not viewers know that 52% of the calories in a Big Mac comes from fat offers no explanation beyond that or where that information came from and specifically targets one company. Even if it is true, it needs more information. It was turned down by Corus, says Morgan.
However, the others, such as the spot depicting North America as a giant pig or the TV viewer as "the product" are visually interesting and not offensive. In fact, says Morgan after viewing the ads, she could envision Corus' YTV, for example, airing one or two of the Adbusters ads, all of which are posted on the "Media Carta" portion of its web site, www.adbusters.org. However, Adbusters did not offer Corus all of its ads, she says.
Walker says his group wants to at least show that consumption and television-watching isn't all good, that there are others out there who see the world from another point of view.
However, broadcasters from Japan to Germany to South Africa to the U.S. have told them they do not want to air advocacy ads such as the ones Adbusters has produced. "We were told that selling a product is okay, selling an idea is not," says Walker.
The advertising climate presents "an incredibly distorted reality that's actually screwing with our heads," says Walker. "Our media is more and more important. It can shape the world and help form opinions, especially television� (and) the advertising industry is a powerful part of the media. (But) they play to our insecurities."
On its site, the group has posted the responses from many broadcasters over requests to air the ads, including some Canadian ones. It even has audio of those executives turning them down. "You know what I feel like saying? Suck it up, it's the real world," says the site, quoting Julie Hoover, an ABC vice-president of advertising.
"We're in the business to make money, and we're in the business to sell our customers products. So why would we come out and say 'don't buy anything' and affect the economy?" says CTV's sales director Al Hudak, as quoted on www.mediacarta.org.
"The reasons we were given (in turning down the spots) were pretty straightforward: They're a business and these kinds of ads would infuriate their sponsors," repeats Walker. "We should have just as much access as these corporations� there is a public interest to be served."
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