It begins with a scene familiar in suburban America — school girls in soccer uniforms climb out of their family SUVs and rush out onto the field, pony tails bobbing behind them, as parents shout encouragement.
But just as the game gets under way, a blast pierces the excitement. Panic and chaos erupt; there are injuries. A mother screams in anguish as her husband emerges from the field carrying the lifeless body of their daughter. The screen goes dark and a tagline comes up: "If there were land mines here, would you stand for them anywhere?"
The public service announcement was intended to spark interest in clearing land mines and the other explosive remnants of war that litter some 80 countries across the world — and kill and maim 20,000 people a year, many of them children.
"We felt that because children are victimized by the land mines more than adults, that it was important to make the parallel story as clear as possible," says Guy Barnett, creative director at Brooklyn Brothers, the New York City ad agency that produced the spot for the U.N. Mine Action Service. "We foolishly thought that people would think that the message … would be important enough to show."
The spot's release by the U.N. agency, which says it sent the PSA to dozens of U.S. broadcasters, including all major networks and most cable channels, has been met by a deafening silence.
Since the PSA was announced in late December, the only U.S. television outlet to agree to run it has been The History Channel, which aired it just once, in the middle of the night.
"Either (broadcasters) have refused to air it or didn’t respond, or they continue to sit on it," says Richard Kollodge, information manager for U.N. Mine Action Service. "Some said it's not appropriate for our audiences, or there were a lot of different reasons."
He said his agency continues to follow up with networks for airtime. CNN International, which broadcasts outside the United States and had agreed to air the spot last week, said this week that it had pulled the spot, according to Kollodge, after CNN domestic rejected the PSA for what officials told him were "various reasons."
CNN did not respond to repeated calls seeking comment.
Too much reality for a real audience?
Experts on media and on land mines who viewed the spot reacted with a mix of admiration and incredulity.
Video: Networks say no to PSA "There is a part of me that wants the American public to see the truth and I think the spot conveys the truth … and in my ideal world every individual would see that truth and take action," says Mia Drake Brandt, who produces public service announcements for UNICEF USA. "But I knew it would never fly. You can't get that graphic. No one will accept it."
"Unfortunately we have to be very strategic and cautious as we negotiate the system and try to get as powerful and compelling as we can within those strictures," she said.
"Was the video right on? Absolutely," says Heidi Kuhn, head of Roots of Peace, a California-based organization that funds mine-clearing projects in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and then builds schools and playing fields on the cleared sites. But she concedes the PSA may be a bit "too powerful" for American audiences, which haven't experienced the effects of land mines on their own soil.
Before a public service announcement can even reach a U.S. audience, it has to pass muster with media managers.
"The first rule of thumb is that you have two audiences," says Robert Schultz a partner at Plowshare Group, a Stamford, Conn.-based firm that specializes in public service announcements for non-profits and government agencies. "The first is the media gatekeeper," so it has to fit their style and sensibilities. "If it is going to upset viewers, it’s not necessarily one that is compatible," he said.
Shrinking slot for public service
Calls to broadcasters were inconclusive about the reasoning behind the spot's failure to get air time.
NBC, ABC said they did not receive the spots, and CBS did not respond to telephone inquiries.
ABC spokesperson Julie Hoover was willing to offer general guidance on PSAs, however: "If a TV network feels it's too graphic or controversial or a discussion of a controversial issue of public importance … then they're not going to run it."
Other comments are a reminder of the stiff competition for broadcast space — and that the allotment of time offered to public service messages has plummeted since the federal government dropped it as a licensing requirement in 1985.
"We rarely consider outside PSAs," said Erika Pascal, who oversees ad traffic for MSNBC and CNBC. "If we did get (the spot), we didn’t review it and didn’t consider running it," she said.
(MSNBC.com is affiliated with MSNBC cable under a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC News.)
Lifetime Television said it turned down the spot because it was too long — 60 seconds compared with 15 seconds for most public service messages. "It didn't fit our format," said Gary Morgenstein, a spokesman for the network. He declined to comment on the content of the spot.
The soccer PSA may have been viewed as crossing into advocacy, in which case it would not be eligible for free air time. The United States is the only NATO country not party to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, and the Bush administration is under fire for backing away from a U.S. presidential directive to eliminate land mine use by 2006. Thus, the soccer spot might be construed as an effort to press for policy change.
The keys to the kingdom
However, by way of comparison, Barnett says most of the spots his company produces are used.
UNICEF — the United Nations Children's Fund — has scored major successes with its PSAs, particularly those that parallel major news events. Following the tsunami in December, for instance, the United Nations prepared a 30-second PSA seeking donations for the victims.
"Within days, all the networks responded favorably," says Marissa Buckanoff, a UNICEF spokeswoman. "ABC fed it to their entire list of affiliates. Others put it in a regular rotation. CNN International, who always respond favorably to U.N. PSAs, aired the spot continually."
"Whatever the images are (in UNICEF spots), they are bold and optimistic," says Buckanoff. "We want to show the hope, and the work. Those are our guidelines."
While the soccer spot appears doomed to fail to reach the massive American television audience, it has circulated widely on alternative news sites and has been featured in Internet discussion groups after Advertising Age ran a small item on it on Feb. 28. Barnett says some 80,000 users visited the Brooklyn Brothers site in March — far more than the normal monthly count of a few thousand — because of controversy surrounding the land mine spot, which his company produced on a pro bono basis.
"The interesting thing about the Internet is that you realize that you’re not necessarily beholden to broadcast networks to get a message across," says Barnett. "More and more, it seems that a lot of people have the high bandwidth needed to watch it."
Spot debated online
Among those who have seen the soccer spot on the Internet, passionate debate has ensued — as much about the role of mainstream media as about the problem of land mines.
"Those same corporate behemoths won't run the ad because it would wake people up. ... It would generate real passion, create energy outside the control of the behemoth thingie," writes Wintermane in a bulletin board discussion on Worldchanging.com, which dedicates itself to "alternative topics."
Phaethor writes: "Wow! If that was shown every morning on a major television network nationwide during everyone's morning breakfast and news hour, I bet we'd get more support for banning mines worldwide. again... Wow!"
But an anonymous author called the ad "arrogant" and said it "implies we don't care; this ad would only piss people off instead of making them give more; really, what were they thinking?"
Even some sympathizers expressed a gut-level reaction that might cause a spot like the soccer PSA to backfire.
"YUCK," responded a professional woman with two children after viewing the spot online. "They definitely should not run it."
"If my kids saw that, I would be furious," wrote Susan Kittleson, another high-level professional with two children. "We don’t watch the evening news as I think they are careless about the images that they expose families to during prime time. ... There are ways to communicate a message that are equally as powerful as terror and less terrifying for a young child to see."
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