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Business Groups Air Anti-War Sentiments on Pages of U.S. Publications : Advertising: The growing number of diverse American firms taking a public stand on foreign policy are hoping their ads will influence Congress.

January 04, 1991|BRUCE HOROVITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some surprising anti-war activists--including 19 American businesses--are turning to advertising to protest Bush Administration policy in the Persian Gulf.

Earlier this week, a diverse group of businesses ranging from Ben & Jerry's ice cream on the East Coast to LA Weekly on the West Coast placed a $35,000 full-page ad in the New York Times that called the conflict "an unnecessary war." The advertisement advised President Bush that "The price of gasoline should never be a reason to send our sons and daughters off to die in a foreign war."

Last month, a division of the American G.I. Forum, a large Latino veterans group, also ran a full-page ad in the New York Times addressed to the emir of Kuwait that asked: "Is it fair that there are more soldiers in the desert from East Los Angeles and Watts than from Kuwait?"

These ads may be just the beginning. Over the next few weeks, a number of anti-war ads are expected to appear in the nation's newspapers before the United Nations-mandated Jan. 15 deadline by which Iraqi soldiers must leave Kuwait or face the possibility of military force.

"Advertising is communication, and that's what we're after," said Ben Cohen, chairman of Ben & Jerry's, the Waterbury, Vt., maker of natural ice cream that formed the unusual business coalition. "The problem is, President Bush gets to do his advertising for free, and we have to pay for it."

Most of the businesses whose names appear in this week's advertisement have long been regarded as activist firms. Ben & Jerry's, for example, has established an organization of 400 companies that each give 1% of their profits to groups involved in peace efforts. And Patagonia Inc., the Ventura-based outdoor clothing designer and distributor that signed the ad, says it gives 10% of its profit to environmental groups.

What do the businesses behind the recent ad hope to accomplish?

"Businesses are not known for taking political stands--or for warning the country not to go to war," said Cohen. "We hope people who see it will be encouraged to speak out against armed conflict."

Although it is rare for most image-conscious American businesses to take advertised stands on foreign policy, this is not the first time it has happened. During the Vietnam War, a group of mostly small-business people who dubbed themselves "Businessmen Against the War" ran some anti-war advertisements.

Back in December, 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono ran a full-page anti-war ad in the New York Times that said in huge print, "WAR IS OVER!" This was followed in small print by the additional words, "If you want it." The ad was signed, "Happy Christmas from John & Yoko Lennon." A spokesperson for Yoko Ono said she has no plans to address the current Persian Gulf conflict through advertising.

In 1971, Playboy magazine, which was widely read by soldiers serving in Vietnam, ran at no charge a full-page ad placed by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. That ad featured a picture of a flag-draped coffin under the headline, "We must speak for them."

Do anti-war advertisements with the backing of American businesses pack much punch?

"Most congressmen are more likely to listen to an ad in the New York Times by some reasonably upright businesses than they would to many other things," said Pete Zastrow, president of the Chicago-based Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

The recent anti-war ad was the brainstorm of Ben & Jerry's Cohen, who telephoned about 40 chief executives--about half of whom agreed to sign onto the ad. Those companies that signed on generally say their strategy is simple: make the public aware that some businesses favor diplomacy over war. The ad also calls for a new National Energy Policy that could eliminate the need to import any oil.

"It might not change George Bush's mind," said Michael Sigman, publisher of LA Weekly, "but it might jar someone a little and make them think about what's going on."

"This is not an attempt to sell more records," said Harold Bronson, managing director at Rhino Records, the independent record company based in Santa Monica that signed onto the ad. "It's an indicator of where Rhino stands as a company."

"Some people might think it's strange for a company to get involved in foreign policy," said Kevin Sweeney, public affairs director at Patagonia. "But a lot of companies do it privately by sending lobbyists to Washington. We prefer to do it publicly."

Some who signed the ad also hope it could eventually have a snowball effect.

"The ad could lead to more people running ads," said Stephen Garey, president of the Santa Monica-based Stephen Garey & Associates, which did not create the ad but which is the only ad agency that signed it as a sponsor. "If enough people write about this, maybe 'Good Morning America' will pick it up."

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