Selling Civil Liberties
When Americans open their morning papers, turn on the TV to catch the weather or log onto the internet at the start of the day, they are used to being bombarded with ads for everything from shampoo and SUVs to dating services and weight loss regimens. But now they are also seeing paid ads selling them on an issue that many previously either took for granted or didn't think about much at all: the importance of our civil liberties.
Starting last October, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been running a $3.5 million ad campaign called Keep America Safe and Free which includes print, internet and TV ads around the country reminding people of the importance of civil liberties and depicting, in sound-bite, advertising-speak, the way the USA PATRIOT Act and other post-9/11 war on terrorism policies have been gutting these liberties. The ads also urge citizens to contact government officials in an effort to stop proposed legislation like the so-called PATRIOT II which would further curb civil liberties.
In April the ACLU launched a print ad running in papers including The New York Times, the Houston Chronicle, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the Washington Times and the Salt Lake Tribune that deals with the "sneak and peek" search, which was one of the provisions of the PATRIOT Act. A sneak and peek means government officials can enter ones residence and investigate computer files and other personal items without notifying the target of the search.
The ad consists of a "While You Were Out" post-it note on the front door which lists different invasions of privacy government officials have taken. "Ironically the one unchecked box is 'Tried to Reach You About All of This,' drawing attention to the government's power to search a person's home without presenting a warrant in advance," says a press release from the ACLU's New York office, which is spearheading the ad campaigns. (The office was unable to be reached for comment for this story.) "Readers are urged to contact members of Congress to complain about sneak and peek searches."
An online ad that is part of the campaign deals with the Transportation Safety Administration's proposed CAPPS II system, which would create a permanent blacklist of people deemed a security threat who will not be allowed to travel freely.
"Many of the powers the government recently acquired, and many of the ones it still seeks, are not tied solely to anti-terrorism efforts," said ACLU executive director Anthony Romero. "Enacting policies that allow the government to enter our homes in secret and to collect highly personal information won't make us safer, but it will make us less free."
The campaign represents the first time in its 80-year history that the ACLU has run paid TV ads. The campaign was kicked off last fall with 30-second TV spots running on cable networks in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle and Washington D.C. It also ran during Sunday morning news talk shows on ABC, CBS and NBC networks in L.A., Chicago, Washington D.C., San Francisco and Seattle.
The spots showed hands editing and cutting out parts of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights as a voiceover said, "Look what John Ashcroft is doing to our Constitution. He's seized powers for the Bush Administration no president should ever have. The right to investigate you for what you say, to intrude on your privacy, to hold you in jail without charging you with a crime."
The ads were paid for largely by donations specifically earmarked for the purpose, showing the widespread concern about the issue. Clarke Caywood, a professor of integrated marketing at Northwestern University, noted that while nonprofit organizations often run issue-oriented ad campaigns during election seasons, an off-season, open-ended and expensive campaign like this one is unusual.
"We're not normally accustomed to seeing issue ads during nonpolitical seasons," he said. "But these are unusual times so they require thoughtful ideas about how to get discussions going. The challenge for public interest groups now is that the front pages for several months have been full of immediate news about the war or the war on terrorism -- we're not in a reflective period where we have longer think-pieces by journalists or columnists dealing with issues like this."
Caywood noted that in addition to directly reaching viewers and readers, the ads are likely intended to generate news stories themselves.
"Advertising is not the most common way for public interest groups to get their issues noticed because they're used to having their story be newsworthy" on its own merits, Caywood said. "But by running the ads they can become a matter of discussion and become newsworthy. It's a public relations response."
He also noted that the ads are just one part of the ACLU's integrated campaign, which also includes its usual direct mailings, public presentations, lawsuits and other actions.
"Advertising is just one component of it, but it's a pricey component," he said.
On a logistical level, he said the ads need to capture the public's attention within a limited time frame and generate discussion that will keep going on its own, because it would be such a huge financial undertaking for the organization to run an ad campaign like this for an extended period of time.
"The beauty of running issue-oriented ads during political campaigns is that political campaigns are short, they have an end," Caywood said. "Here they can't afford to stay in front of the public as long as a cereal manufacturer could afford to stay in front of the public."
Ed Yohnka, communications director of the Illinois ACLU, said he thinks the ads have already been highly effective.
"They support the work weve been doing legislatively, legally and communications-wise," he said. "They are part of a long-term strategy, an effective campaign that has at least begun to sway Americans' opinions about some of the actions that have been taken since Sept. 11."
Yohnka said he has been pleasantly surprised to randomly hear people on the train or in other public spaces discussing the ads. "The ads make people stop and think, it really helps foster debate and discussion," he said. "I'm amazed how much people are talking about them."
Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office, said in a release that the ads are expected to result in concrete action on the part of ACLU members and the general public. Among other things, the ACLU is pushing municipalities and states to pass resolutions and ordinances prohibiting local law enforcement from participating in federal anti-terrorism measures that infringe on civil liberties, such as the Justice Department's plan to involve local and state police in immigration proceedings. The ACLU says that at least nine municipalities have already passed such resolutions.
"There are a growing number of people in America who are frightened and angry about the government's anti-civil liberties response to the terrorist attacks, and they are ready to act," she said. "We are going to organize them, expand their numbers and put politicians in Washington on notice that the American people want the checks and balances of democracy, not the edicts and decrees of kings."
Kari Lydersen writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago.