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It's funny what passes for offensive these days

A billboard critical of Mercury Insurance is taken down after the firm complains. But a vodka ad suggestive of part of the female anatomy is still eliciting gasps.

September 09, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

The ads weren't far from each other on Wilshire Boulevard in Koreatown.

One, on a billboard, was critical of an automobile and home insurance company.

The other, draped across the sprawling face of a tall building, was a vodka promotion that appeared to include an essential part of the female anatomy.

Any guess which one was torn down because of a complaint?

"Truth is more controversial than pornography," said Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Consumer Watchdog, whose ad was dismantled last week. All the ad said was, "You Can't Trust Mercury Insurance," with a referral to Consumer Watchdog's website, which lays out 10 concerns the organization has with Mercury.

And the other billboard?

"If you drive three to four blocks east of where ours was," said Rosenfield's colleague, Jamie Court, "there's a huge Absolut Mango ad, and it's really not a mango."

Court said he was alerted by his wife, who happened upon it while driving and made the following observation:

"There's a five-story vagina on a building."

Having visited the location Tuesday afternoon, I'd like to make a clarification.

There's a 10-story vagina on a building.

Sure, art is in the eye of the beholder, but I know a mango when I see one.

A pedestrian walked by on Wilshire and I asked his thoughts. He gazed up and said:

"What is it, a womb?"

"Close," I said.

Across the street at the non-denominational Christ Church of the Living Christ and the Loving Heart, secretary and longtime congregant Mary Metz said she hadn't noticed the ad. But when she walked out with me and looked up, she gave a little nod and said:

"Oh, yes."

Meaning what?

It certainly could be seen as suggestive, Metz said. And she was not the least bit surprised.

"The world's going to hell in a handbag," she said.

Indeed. I keep lighting candles and it doesn't seem to help.

But let's get back to the billboard that was brought down after Mercury complained to CBS Outdoor. As Rosenfield points out, CBS Outdoor had approved the ad before it went up at Wilshire and Wilton Place. For nearly two weeks, there was no problem, but then Mercury's lawyers complained to CBS and that was the end of it.

But the company may have traded one problem for another: Rosenfield is so ticked off, he says he is thinking about running for state insurance commissioner.

My calls to Mercury and to CBS Outdoor produced zilch. CBS said it had no new comment and referred me to someone in New York, where I left a message. A Mercury spokesman said there was nothing to add to the insurance company's written statement last week:

"CBS apparently has considered our comments and, as a responsible organization, has removed the defamatory statements from their billboard. Consumer Watchdog's claims about Mercury Insurance and its motivation are without merit."

Thanks, but I'd prefer to have someone from Mercury explain exactly what's defamatory and which claims are without merit. I'd like to know, in particular, because I'm a Mercury client and I'm feeling a little oily about it.

Is it true, as Consumer Watchdog alleges, that Mercury is an "abusive, anti-consumer company"? What's the company's explanation for backing legislation that would undermine key consumer protections? And just why does it dish out so much in campaign contributions? Couldn't the company lower my rates instead?

I passed along my request to speak to Mercury Chairman George Joseph, because I might as well hear from the man at the top. I'm hoping he can work me into his lunch calendar one of these days. That would also give me a chance to ask him what he thinks about the prospect of Harvey Rosenfield running for insurance commissioner, and I suspect the words "worst nightmare" could be popping into Joseph's head right now.

Joseph "has never been willing to respect the will of the voters, and I think it's finally time for a guy like me to get in there and hold a guy like that accountable," said Rosenfield, who reiterated that he's not yet sure whether he can be a bigger pain to the insurance industry as an outsider or an insider.

By the way, Mercury's rates are certainly competitive. I've got Mercury for both auto and home insurance. But I've been conflicted as it is, given Mercury's manipulation of the political process, and now there's the billboard controversy to consider.

Of course, Mercury isn't the only insurance company that plays hardball in Sacramento. But it's one of the bigger players, bankrolling the campaigns of legislators by the dozens, which never fails to work wonders and boost industry profits.

Fed-up Californians voted themselves some protection in 1988 with Proposition 103, but the way Rosenfield tells it, Mercury has steadily attempted to chip away at those protections. And the insurance giant is now behind a potential ballot initiative that Rosenfield said would put a surcharge on customers who have a lapse in coverage because of unemployment or other factors.

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