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HOWARD ROSENBERG

A 'Frog Advocate' Leaps to Prominence

November 09, 1987|HOWARD ROSENBERG

"Hi, my name is Jenifer Graham," says the beaming girl on the screen.

Typical high school. Typical biology lab. Typical teen-ager.

Except that the high school lab, instead of being real, is a set at Culver Studios in Culver City. And Jenifer Graham, now a 16-year-old junior at Victor Valley High School in Victorville, is no typical teen-ager.

How many teens have earned the right to be called a "frog advocate"?

The 30-second national commercial for Apple computers, which is scheduled to run through the Christmas season, lets Jenifer tell her own true story:

"Last year in my biology class, I refused to dissect a frog. I didn't want to hurt a living thing. I said I would be happy to do it on an Apple computer. That way, I can learn and the frog lives. But that got me into a lot of trouble, and I got a lower grade. So this year, I'm using my Apple II to study something entirely new--constitutional law."

At one point, Jenifer is beside an Apple computer screen showing Apple's "Operation Frog" pathology program. She also strokes a real frog on its neck, but doesn't get the last word. The final sound you hear, as the spot concludes, is a croak.

What a charming, inventive commercial, one that shrewdly celebrates Apple as it does Jenifer, a girl who had the courage and determination last spring to buck a school system over a cause that she believed was just.

A vegetarian since age 10, Jenifer believes that killing animals for food, research, clothing or sport "harms the God in everything."

The "constitutional law" reference in the commercial is pertinent as well as amusing. Jenifer has a suit pending in federal court in Los Angeles claiming that the Victor Valley Union High School District acted unconstitutionally in not allowing her an alternative to dissecting frogs as a way of satisfying requirements for her elective college-prep biology course. Some California school districts do allow such alternative courses of study.

The district is seeking dismissal of the suit, which also asks for restoration of Jenifer's A grade that was lowered to B after her refusal to dissect a frog on moral grounds.

How did a girl from Victorville come to star in a national TV commercial that at once promotes computers and animal rights?

Jenifer's case was nationally publicized in newspapers and on TV and she even appeared on Joan Rivers' late-night show. "She seemed charming and articulate and a really neat kid who was really sure of what she was doing," said Steve Hayden, creative director for BBDO, the advertising agency with the Apple account. "I thought, 'Eureka!' "

Hayden, whose wife and 17-year-old daughter are also animal rights activists, proposed that Apple do a commercial with Jenifer. "Apple wouldn't do anything until they (Jenifer and her mother, Patricia Graham) supplied 800 letters from teachers all around the country in support of Jenifer," Hayden said.

"We weren't looking for controversy," said Bruce Mowery, Apple director of marketing and communications. "Fundamentally what we were trying to express is that the Apple is a good learning tool."

"I wanted to do it right away," said Jenifer, who wants to go into oceanography.

Patricia Graham, a vegetarian and animal rights proponent herself, said she insisted on seeing a script before allowing her daughter to make the commercial. "I wasn't about to have fun made about this issue," she said. "The idea of associating Jenie's moral stance with selling a product . . . well, I wasn't sure it could be done."

She changed her mind after reading the script. "I thought it was a wonderful idea from an educational standpoint. It takes a serious subject with a little bit of humor and tells a story in 30 seconds flat."

The spot--created by Hayden, written by Robert Chandler and directed by Bob Giraldi, who also directed Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video--was shot in August. "It took 57 takes," Jenifer said. "We did it four different ways and I made a lot of bloopers."

Among those moved by Jenifer's story was TV producer David Eagle. A longtime animal rights activist himself, Eagle had written school district officials calling them "jerks" for their position on Jenifer. And he planned to go further.

"I was personally interested because I feel very similarly about the kinds of things she believes in," said Eagle, whose partner is KNBC consumer reporter David Horowitz.

Eagle is now negotiating for rights to Jenifer's story. He sees it as a TV movie or after-school special and has contacted several network executives, including Judy Price, CBS vice president for children's programs and daytime specials.

Jenifer would be quite a role model.

"I know it's a tough sale," Eagle said. "I think people are very defensive about anything to do with animal rights and vegetarianism. You talk about animal rights and people start thinking that you're talking about the clothes they wear."

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