Shutting out “controversial” religious ads

Wanted to share with you the ongoing problems folks at United Church of Christ (UCC) (a frequent client of my employer, Media Access Project), are having with getting an advertisement of their on the air. As some of you may recall, the United Church of Christ has found it difficult to buy air time for advertisements urging folks to come to church. Please note, that’s BUY airtime. UCC has not asked for a freebie public service announcement.

Apparently, the message that Jesus ministers to everyone regardless of whether they are mainstream or not is still too “controversial” for mainstream networks. Worse, and further proof of the power of consolidation to supress debate, the cable networks owned or affiliated with the broadcast networks have now joined in the black out of UCC’s controversial “God loves everyone” message. Even the Viacom gay and lesbian network has rejected the advertisement (apparently a church that actually welcomes members of their target audience is too controversial).

For anyone who laughs at the idea that a “free market” will willingly forgo revenues just to block potentially unpopular speech, I advise you to look again. You can read a god op ed on the matter here.

Below I reprint a letter from the Rev. Bob Chase, the head of UCC’s Office of Communication, describing the situation.

As an Orthodox Jew, I am not myself a member of UCC. But I know what it is to be non-mainstream. Anyone who cares about ensuring a free and robust exchange of ideas in this country should ask why UCC can’t find anyone to sell it air time. Is it UCC’s activism on media ownership issues? Their “controversial” decision to appeal to non-mainstream (e.g., gay) parishoners?

And what makes you think the next “controversial” message about your favorite cause will get through?

Stay tuned . . . .

[From the Rev. Robert Chase, United Church of Christ]

As you may have heard, we have just released a new television commercial in our three-year long identity campaign based on the theme, “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” Last year, our allegorical commercial that featured two night-club style bouncers who let some into church and kept others (a gay couple, people of color, a person in a wheelchair) away, was rejected by the major networks.

This year’s commercial, called “ejector seat” has a similar theme. It begins with a shot of an African-American mother trying to calm a crying baby. Sitting in a church pew, the mother fidgets anxiously, as she endures disapproving looks from fellow worshippers. Eventually, someone in the wings pushes an “ejector” button to rid the church of her, and her noisy baby. Into the air they go flying. In similar fashion, a gay couple, an Arab-American, a person using a walker, among others, get “ejected.” Finally, when a homeless person wanders in and takes a seat, nervous parishioners, expecting she’ll get the boot for sure, scoot away from her.The commercial ends with a mood shift, where shots of diverse, friendly people set the stage for the announcer’s invitation: “The United Church of Christ: no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” You can see the commercial here.

This commercial has also been rejected by all the major networks, using such baffling reasons that it is “too controversial” or “political advertising.”

More insidious, and a signal for anyone concerned about the impact of media consolidation, is that the networks have banned it from the cable stations that they own, including several stations that ran our ad last year, removing a critical communication link that the UCC has with the public. See this story here. You can also see a great OpEd piece in the San Jose Mercury News here. Even the Viacom owned LGBT-targeted LOGO network refused to air the ad “because of the political nature of its content.”

Of particular importance to us is that we produced the ad in Spanish and NBC has kept the ad off Telemundo and the good folks at Univision have seen fit not to air the commercial there, virtually eliminating our reach into the Latino community. See our press release on this here.

Remember, we want to pay for these commercials, not get free air time. This begs a huge question for us: why do some religious voices find expression in this country and others do not?

In a related development, there was a significant story in the NY Times this morning featuring our General Minister and President John Thomas and his personal campaign to expose the organized effort on the part of the religious right and their political allies to undermine mainstream faithgroups. You can read this article here.

Thanks for your support as we seek to assert our first amendment rights.


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