The presentation of the Summer Olympics by NBC is making waves on Madison Avenue as well as in Australian pools as the network accepts a commercial it had rejected before the Games and pulls a second spot it had accepted pending viewer reaction.
The decisions involved a commercial for a national antismoking campaign known as Truth, which is now running after being turned down in February, and a commercial for Nike athletic footwear and apparel, which was withdrawn after being broadcast from Friday through Sunday. The decisions are indicative of how the networks are finding it increasingly complicated to determine whether commercials - particularly those intended to draw attention for contentious content - are appropriate to run.
"We know these matters are highly subjective," said Rick Gitter, who oversees advertising acceptability at NBC in New York, part of the General Electric Company, as vice president for advertising standards and program compliance.
The Truth commercial is part of a campaign meant to be the biggest single national advertising, marketing and public relations effort to "unsell" cigarette smoking to adolescents. It is coordinated by an organization called the American Legacy Foundation in Washington and financed by the tobacco industry as part of a landmark $206 billion settlement reached with 46 state attorneys general.
The commercial shows black body bags stacked around an office building; it was filmed in front of the headquarters of Philip Morris, the world's largest tobacco maker, in midtown Manhattan. The bags are intended to represent the "truth" about cigarettes and the ultimate toll they take on smokers: an estimated 1,200 deaths a day.
NBC and the other major broadcast networks - ABC, CBS and Fox - refused to run the commercial when it was originally submitted to them in February. Philip Morris and some attorneys general had complained that the spot violated a stipulation of the settlement, prohibiting ads that "vilify" tobacco companies or their executives.
MTV, however, agreed to take the spot and it runs regularly on that network, which is owned by Viacom Inc. The commercial, along with the entire Truth campaign, is created by a consortium hired by American Legacy that includes Arnold Communications in Boston, part of Snyder Communications, soon to be sold to Havas Advertising, and Crispin Porter & Bogusky in Miami.
Dr. Cheryl Healton, president and chief executive of the foundation, said that its board decided to resubmit the commercial to NBC as part of a substantial purchase of commercial time during the network's coverage of the Olympics.
The goal was to show the spot to a wider audience, she added, as well as four new commercials with similar themes. The new spots introduce the body-bag imagery into settings traditionally associated with cigarette ads like a Western landscape, a chic nightclub and a sunny beach.
"It's incumbent upon us to present to young people the health consequences and social costs of smoking," said Dr. Healton, who is also a professor of public health at Columbia University. "The Olympic Games are an incredible venue for reaching adolescents as well as adults."
"Think of it in the same way as Pepsi going up against Coke for the youth market," she added.
Mr. Gitter said that NBC "had some initial concerns about taste issues" relating to the Truth spot but "rethought it" after being "persuaded by the advertiser to give it a shot, subject to viewer response."
So far, he added, "I haven't heard any complaints."
Brendan McCormick, a spokesman for Philip Morris in New York, had this to say about the executives of the foundation: "We've got no problem with much of what they do. We've been disappointed with some of their ads and some of the tactics they've chosen. But over all, they've got an opportunity to contribute to reducing youth smoking."
Any absence of viewer reaction to the Truth commercial stood in sharp contrast to what Mr. Gitter termed "numerous complaints" about the Nike commercial that was withdrawn. The spot, by Wieden & Kennedy in Portland, Ore., is part of a campaign, carrying the theme "Why sport?" promoting the Nike sponsorship of the Summer Games.
The Nike commercial features Suzy Hamilton, an American competing in Olympic track events, as a terrified woman under attack from a hulking masked man who wields a chain saw. The man chases her through a house, then outdoors into dark woods. Putting on a burst of speed, Ms. Hamilton leaves her assailant far behind. He drops the chain saw and walks off, breathing hard, as these words appear on screen: "Why sport? Because you'll live longer."
The commercial, intended as a spoof of horror movies, was instead construed by many viewers as an inappropriate attempt to find humor in violence against women, even though Ms. Hamilton is triumphant in the end. For instance, this columnist received an unsolicited e-mail message yesterday from a reader, Judith Schaeffer of Washington, who described the commercial as "truly disgusting and misogynistic."
Mr. Gitter said that NBC had accepted the Nike spot "with some trepidation" and "subject to significant adverse audience reaction."
"We were fully prepared to react quickly" to complaints, he added, so once they came in, "it was pulled."
Liz Hartge, a spokeswoman for Wieden & Kennedy, said that in addition to the complaints, which had been "somewhat expected," Nike and the agency had also been praised for the commercial.
"The goal was to present fundamental truths about sports in new and contemporary ways," Ms. Hartge said. "We think it's unfortunate that NBC pulled the spot." The spots continues to run on the ESPN cable network, she added.
Perhaps the castigation could have been mitigated if, say, the movie parody element had been played up. For instance, the commercial could have started in a theater filled with athletes watching a movie and ended with a close-up of Ms. Hamilton looking relieved and exultant.
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. September 19, 2000
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