MIAMI — Four months after a furor erupted over the decision to pay radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh $1 million to tout Florida orange juice, stagnant sales and a stepped-up national boycott have put the squeeze on the state Citrus Commission to can the outspoken conservative.
"I have not seen any outstanding results from Mr. Limbaugh's promotion," said William E. Owens, one of 12 commissioners who will meet next month to consider renewing Limbaugh's contract. "I don't think the members of the commission realized how controversial he turned out to be. I am going to vote no."
Ivy M. Leventhal, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Citrus, insists that Limbaugh is not an official spokesman for orange juice, but rather the host of a top-rated, nationally syndicated radio program hired to read advertising copy. Limbaugh's program was just one part of a diverse $17-million media buy for an ad campaign built around the tag line, "Florida orange juice, to your health."
"We did not set out to create controversy," Leventhal says. Nonetheless, controversy is what the commission got. In more than 26,500 telephone calls, letters and faxes received by the Department of Citrus through last week, opposition to Limbaugh is running 4 to 1.
Known for calling some women's rights activists "femi-nazis" and bashing gays, environmentalists and Democrats, Limbaugh has become so closely associated with Florida orange juice that he is being compared to past spokespersons who became equally controversial: Anita Bryant and Burt Reynolds.
Bryant, a singer, pitched orange juice for 12 years until her opposition to gay rights got her fired in 1980. Reynolds' one-year contract to hawk O.J. was not renewed after his split with wife, Loni Anderson, turned nasty and went public.
The boycott of Florida orange juice--labeled the "Flush Rush campaign"--is being spearheaded by the National Organization for Women and has received support from the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, among others.
In a letter mailed to hundreds of groups last month, NOW President Patricia Ireland said that Limbaugh's "hatemongering is being underwritten by state and federal tax dollars," and urges support of the boycott "to expose the hateful, divisive fanaticism of Rush Limbaugh." Enlisting support for the boycott is high on the agenda of NOW's national convention, which begins July 1 in San Antonio.
In addition to Florida orange juice, NOW also has called for a boycott of Coca Cola, which owns Minute Maid, a major buyer of Florida oranges.
"Limbaugh likes to say he is a harmless little fuzz ball, but believe me, he's not harmless," Ireland says. "He knows his audience very well, and makes them laugh. But what he says is very harmful to women's rights. When he calls women 'femi-nazis' and says they are trying to criminalize courtship, that's not funny or harmless."
The controversy spilled over into the Florida Legislature in March when a Senate committee held up the normally routine appointment of three members to the Citrus Commission. Some lawmakers said the reason for the delay was to protest the composition of the commission, which is made up of 11 white men and one white woman.
But Limbaugh also was a target. "We're looking for people who will present the best possible image for Florida citrus--not people who will engender hate, disregard for minorities, or represent any political philosophy," state Sen. Peter Weinstein said.
Bill Quarles, president of the California-Arizona Citrus League, says he has seen no evidence that the flap in Florida has spurred sales of Western orange juice. But a Citrus Commission spokesman said sales of Florida orange juice have been flat since Limbaugh began touting the drink, although other variables, such as price, may be a factor.
Says commissioner Owens, a grower from Indiantown: "In the future, I kind of think we should not use a personality to promote our product. I think we could do just as well without it."