Following what it calls a long-standing policy of refusing Super Bowl airtime to all ads that take a stand on issues of public importance, CBS has refused airtime during next Sunday’s game to two advocacy groups, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). PETA and MoveOn, however, have openly wondered whether CBS’s policy has been selectively applied. MoveOn’s ad, the winner of its “Bush in 30 Seconds” contest, depicts children working menial jobs behind the caption: “Guess who’s going to pay off President Bush’s $1 trillion deficit?” PETA’s equates meat eating with impotence. Neither ad, contend CBS’s critics, is more controversial than the campaign launched during Super Bowl 2002 by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) equating illegal-drug buys with terrorism.

MoveOn and PETA may have a case, but only to the extent that all advertising is advocacy — drink Miller, not Bud; eat McDonald’s, not Burger King; ask your doctor if Lipitor is right for you. But it was Fox, not CBS, that aired the ONDCP ads in 2002, and while CBS may plan to, it hasn’t done so yet.

“If you see an ad that offends you on this year’s Super Bowl, call me the morning after the broadcast,” says the CBS network’s executive vice president, Martin D. Franks. “But if you want to talk about last year’s ads, call ABC. And if you want to talk about the ads two years ago, call Fox.” Franks, who says he’s “losing his sense of humor” over what he calls an “invalid controversy,” speculates that both organizations have intentionally manufactured trouble “because they’re enjoying all the media attention they’re getting.”

He might be right. If it’s hard to imagine that CBS — the network that kicked The Reagans down to Showtime and whose parent company, Viacom, refused anti-war billboards — would risk offending its estimated 90 million Super Bowl viewers by accepting either ad, it’s even harder to imagine that MoveOn or PETA thought they would.

It’s a familiar advertising trick, says Bill Hillsman, president of North Woods Advertising, Minneapolis, Minnesota: If you stir up enough interest in your ad, you can win some free airtime. “PETA has long known the value of what we called ‘earned media,’” says Hillsman, who pioneered the technique back in 1990 with an offbeat, two-minute ad for then–senatorial candidate Paul Wellstone, which aired many times for free after local and national networks found it newsworthy.

Neither MoveOn nor PETA returned calls to confirm its tactics, but they no doubt hope their campaigns will prove more successful than the ONDCP’s: According to a study released this week by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the two exquisitely compelling anti-drug spots, by British director Tony Kaye (American History X), which cost taxpayers $3.2 million, have had next to zero effect on teenagers’ attitudes toward drug use.

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