When the Super Bowl is beamed into living rooms around the world Sunday, you can expect to see TV spots hyping cars, beer, razor blades, three different erectile dysfunction cures, toilet paper and snack foods.
The ads will be slick and clever, lavishly produced, brilliant in their marketing. Some, no doubt, will be sexually suggestive or violent. Most will cost $2 million to $3 million to produce and broadcast.
But here's what you won't see: a single ad about the big issues that face our country today.
Outrageous as it may sound, CBS has decided that ads selling erectile dysfunction medicines and toilet paper are appropriate for Americans, but serious discussion should be banned. An ad about our country, our war, our president, the state of our schools or the size of our budget deficit? That, in the eyes of CBS officialdom, would be too controversial.
We know, because we tried. We thought that the Super Bowl, with 130 million viewers, would be a great place to get our message out. So we held a contest on the Internet to select the best ad we could possibly run. The ad we selected -- from 1,500 submissions -- shows children cleaning offices, washing dishes and hauling trash. It ends with the question: "Guess who's going to pay off President Bush's $1-trillion deficit?" (It's viewable at MoveOn.org).
But even though we were willing to pony up the $1.6 million to pay for it, CBS refused to sell us the time, citing what it says is a 50-year-old policy prohibiting ads that take stands on controversial public policy issues.
CBS claims its policy is designed to keep the Citibanks and Microsofts of the world from buying time to tell Americans how to think. "It is designed to prevent those with means to produce and purchase network advertising from having undue influence on 'controversial issues of public importance,' " the network said this week.
Sounds fair, doesn't it? But what it really means is that if McDonald's buys an ad promoting its tasty Big Mac, no one can run an ad that says Big Macs are full of fat and unhealthful. Pfizer can run a spot saying it's "helping people in need" get medicine, but we can't air an ad saying that Pfizer lobbied to weaken the new Medicare bill to prop up drug prices. Halliburton has slick ads that stress its role supporting the troops in Iraq. But CBS would reject an ad that pointed to Halliburton's profiteering.
The fewer issue ads run, the more time there is for ads with mud-wrestling women selling beer and leggy models peddling fast cars. CBS execs think Americans love mindless consumerism more than anything else and that it's their duty to pander to this.
But with "fairness" doctrines no longer governing the airwaves and the media more concentrated each day, it's getting harder and harder to engage regular people in political discourse. Even the town square has been replaced, in most communities, by private malls, where politics is not encouraged.
Instead of taking every opportunity to promote civic discussion, commercial broadcasters like CBS shrink away. The airwaves are, more than ever, private enterprises. And for that we pay a price: As public political speech becomes more difficult and infrequent, the public becomes less engaged in the policies, processes and laws that govern us. "Controversy" isn't the real problem. Network front offices love it when one group or another protests sexy babes in bikinis peddling beer brands, or violent video games in which the highest body count wins. That builds buzz.
The CBS policy represents the triumph of corporate self-interest over the public interest. This is the same CBS, after all, that yanked the Ronald Reagan miniseries recently when Republican bigwigs complained. As Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) noted this week, "These are the same executives at CBS who successfully lobbied this Congress to change the FCC rules on TV station ownership to their corporate advantage." CBS simply would rather not risk offending powerful people in Washington who decide such critical regulatory matters.
But try getting that issue into a 30-second spot for Super Bowl audiences.
Eli Pariser is Campaigns Director for the MoveOn.org Voter Fund.