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Once Upon a Corporation...

By Stephen R. Latham

It is the age of the proportional profits elephant, the time of the corporate fable, when a format meant for children is used to teach very adult and controversial ideologies.

The simple days of the jumping fox, the vain crow and the ungrateful dog are over. No longer are fables merely animal tales; no longer are their morals just well-phrased statements of the obvious. It is the age of the proportional profits elephant, the time of the corporate fable, when a format meant for children is used to teach very adult and controversial ideologies.

The elephant and the fable are both creatures of Mobil Oil Corporation, which recently produced a series of "issue oriented" commercials in fable form to accompany its Mobil Showcase television series "Edward and Mrs. Simpson." The elaborately-created ads, which feature stellar dance and mime groups, including the American Ballet Theater, promote the corporation's faith in laissez-faire capitalism and encourage the viewer to take stands against government control of profits, policy and company activities.

Mobil's fables were not well received everywhere. Three of 57 television stations refused to air the commercials, claiming they are "too controversial" and that their one-sided treatment of issues of economic ideology does not belong on commercial air-time.

"We have a policy against the advertising of ideological views in short commercials," says G. William Ryan, vice president and general manager of Hartford, Connecticut's WFSB-TV, the first station to reject Mobil's advertisements. If stations do not uphold this kind of policy, Ryan says, "the public could be swayed based upon the economic strength of certain advertisers." WDIV of Detroit, Michigan, and WJXT of Jacksonville, Florida, joined their sister Washington Post-Newsweek station in refusing to air the ads.

But while the stations objected to the commercials, they had no objection to Mobil's top-quality program offering, which follows the celebrated romance and abdication of Britain's King Edward VIII. In fact, the stations made every effort to hold on to the six-part British-produced series. "We offered to let them substitute other commercials," Ryan says, "We recommended that they run the same ads they ran in their showcase series last year. We even offered to help them shoot new ads, if necessary." But Mobil refused the offers and withdrew from the stations its purchases of six and one-half hours of prime television broadcasting time--purchases it made last fall. And it had no trouble finding other stations willing to air the series at the same time, original ads intact.

"We didn't want them censoring us, telling us what we should say," Tony S. DeNigro, manager of media programming for Mobil, says. "The commercials are elegant and sophisticated. They discuss important issues of the day," he says, adding, "We need a greater dialogue with the public to bring our point of view out. Stations have plenty of opportunity to air all points of view, but ours in not being aired."

The commercials unbashedly make Mobil's point of view quite clear. Featuring, besides the American Ballet Theater, such performers as the Pilobolus dancers, Shields and Yarnell, and the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company in roles as animals and other fable characters, they present allegories for modern business situations that cannot be considered "subtle." The fables are hard-driving. One declares that "nothing cripples innovation and enterprise like heavy-handed regulation." Another describes an ideal society of animals, played by Lar Lubovitch dancers in sparkling and outlandish costumes. The storyteller for the three-minute dance-and-cartoon visual presentation tells of an elephant who "moves huge boulders and lifts great trees" to find watering holes for its fellow animals. The animals banish the elephant, accusing it of drinking more than its share of water, not realizing that it needs the water for its great tasks and size. But when the watering hole runs dry, the animals realize their mistake and take the elephant--who has found a new watering hole--back. The fable's moral: "...like the elephant, if our energy producers don't earn a profit proportionate to their size, they won't be able to find and produce more energy. And that's no fable!"

The commercials are adaptations of Mobil's printed advertisements, which have appeared in the op-ed pages of some newspapers in past months. One newspaper that runs the printed ads is the Washington Post, owner of the three television stations that rejected the commercials.

But there's no conflict of advertising policy, McCombs says. Television and newspapers are "two different media. It's apples and oranges." For one thing, she adds, if an advertisement appears in a newspaper such as the Post, the reader can "read the advertisement and contemplate it. On television, it all flies by too quickly." The television commercial "is not adequate form" for the presentation of complicated issues, McCombs says.

"Television, with its sight, sound and motion, is very effective and compelling. You have to be a lot more sensitive about the commercials you run," Ryan says. "You could wind up being brainwashed, potentially, on a given issue."

A greater justification for the Post's seemingly contradictory advertising policy are the Federal Communications Commission regulations governing the use of advertising space on television. The FCC's Fairness Doctrine, enacted in 1949, requires that the broadcast media discuss controversial public issues and offer equal time to responsible groups with opposing viewpoints.

If the Post-Newsweek stations, therefore, aired advertisements like Mobil's, they could be required to allot equal time to parties opposing the opinions expressed in the commercial. The Fairness Doctrine has led many stations simply to refuse to run advertisements that express opinions rather than promote products and services.

Energy Action, a Washington consumer group, is one organization that takes the Fairness Doctrine seriously. They may very well press for equal time at those stations which ran the Mobil ads. "There's a burden on those stations to provide time for opposing points of view," Edwin Rothschild of Energy Action says. If the stations don't provide equal time, Rothschild says, the "economic vastness" of Mobil will allow it to present its opinions unanswered. "They can just about cover every media outlet with their point of view," Rothschild says, "We just haven't got that kind of money."

Officials at Mobil, on the other hand, argue that they are not given enough opportunity in the broadcast media to present their points of view. "It's important to see to it that some views, which should be understood, are indeed brought to the public for recognition, for them to digest," says DeNigro. "It's the idea of creating dialogue," dialogue not fostered by television stations.

To initiate that dialogue, a Mobil spokesman says the corporation sponsors such series as "Edward and Mrs. Simpson," using them as a vehicle for their advertisements. "Mobil sponsors these programs because they establish a relationship with the kind of public the corporation is trying to reach--thought leaders, intellectuals, political decision-makers, people to whom that kind of program might possibly appeal. Of course," the spokesman adds, "we also feel that it's quality programming the American public ought to see."

The intransigience of the three Post-Newsweek stations has made little difference to Mobil. It is getting its point across to America. Fifty-four stations across the United States still air the series, reaching even the broadcast areas close to the three stations that turned down Mobil's ads.

It is the possible Energy Action bid for equal time that, if successful, could have the strongest effect on this issue, and on Mobil's and other future television advertising. Mobil's strong corporate issue-oriented commercials may signal the beginning of a new kind of television advertising, a packaging of philosophy as well as products. If the stations are required under the Fairness Doctrine to grant opposition groups equal time, however, they may think twice about letting such an advertising trend spread. Otherwise, America may see a new sophistication in advertising, a more complex propaganda. Consumer groups could find themselves protecting society from myopic ideological views as well as faulty products.

In the meantime, large audiences are weekly taking in the morals of the over-regulated kitchen, the energy-producing squirrel and the proportional profits elephant. Aesop would pale.

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