An archconservative women's organization has launched a campaign to remove all condom billboards in Los Angeles County, threatening to withdraw support from two county supervisors up for reelection this year unless they push for legislation to ban the ads.
The American Assn. of Women is a Santa Monica-based group that has waged a lengthy battle to protect what it calls "traditional family values" and gained a reputation for punishing any politician who does not actively support its agenda. It has turned its attention to county supervisors after failing to convince the Federal Trade Commission that the billboards promote false advertising.
The battle stems from an advertising campaign aimed at educating citizens about acquired immune deficiency syndrome that is sponsored by the Los Angeles County Medical Assn. The billboard ads, which were unveiled in October, tell readers: "If You Can't Say No . . . Use Condoms (Rubbers), Help Prevent AIDS."
The women's group charges that the ads are immoral and misleading, saying the billboards imply that condoms will prevent exposure to AIDS and that they will promote promiscuity among young adults. The county medical association, taking the view of U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, say that for people who can't or won't abstain from sex, the use of condoms is the next best preventive measure.
Leslie Dutton, president and executive director of the organization, recently wrote a letter to each supervisor, demanding that the board sponsor a resolution to ban further condom billboard advertising. Dutton said that if Deane Dana and Mike Antonovich--two of the board's conservative members--don't fight to ban the billboards, her group will campaign against them, noting "their failure to represent traditional family values." Both supervisors are up for reelection this year.
"We are prepared to educate the public about the stand these elected officials have taken on this matter," Dutton said. "They're letting all of this go by without so much as a whimper. Where are our conservative leaders when it comes time to uphold morality and family values in our country? This is the time for them to speak up."
Dana and Antonovich already have publicly stated that they are opposed to the ads, but say that the billboards are outside the board's jurisdiction.
Victoria Fouce, Antonovich's aide, said that the campaign by the women's group is misdirected and should instead be aimed at the county medical association, the largest in the nation with more than 10,000 members.
"It isn't really us that they have the problem with anyway," Fouce said. "But even if we wanted to sponsor a resolution, there aren't enough votes on the board to pass it. The basic issue here is that we don't regulate the advertising industry."
The women's group filed a formal complaint with the FTC in November. The complaint sought an order banning the billboards, saying that "as long as there is no cure or treatment for the deadly AIDS disease, the FTC has the responsibility to protect the public from such a misleading advertising campaign. . . ."
However, the FTC responded that because the county medical association is not in the business of manufacturing or selling condoms, the ads are non-commercial and therefore protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech.
David Zeitlin, spokesman for the medical association, said that it raised $10,000 for the ad campaign, which began in October. About 100 billboards went up around the county, half in English and half in Spanish. Space for the ads was donated by two billboard companies, Gannett Outdoor and the Winston Group.
Zeitlin said the ads were put up where space was available and nearly all of them have already been taken down. But he added that the physicians' group has no regrets about the ad campaign, which he said has received a mostly positive response.
"I'm personally proud as hell of what we did with the campaign," Zeitlin said. "This is a vital message that we're putting out. If you don't have a cure for AIDS, then using condoms is one of the few ways to slow the spread of the disease. We're not saying that condoms prevent AIDS; we're saying condoms can help prevent AIDS.
"These women are fanatics and they're completely misguided," he said. "Nobody maintains that condoms are 100% effective, but this is one of the few ways we can help to stop the spread of the disease. These women have a different agenda, though, and they never give up."
Fred Guido, vice president of Gannett Outdoor, said that after Dutton's group complained about the ads, the company offered them billboard space to put up their own message. However, Dutton declined, saying that it would do no good to rebut the medical association's stance as long as the other billboards remained.