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Networks Reject Grace’s Latest Ads on Budget Deficit

January 28, 1986

NEW YORK (AP) _ The three major television networks have rejected as too controversial a commercial that W.R. Grace & Co. wants to run on the potential consequences of the federal budget deficit.

But Grace, a conglomerate that has been trying to call attention to the growing debt for more than a year, has arranged to get its 60-second commercial before a national audience anyway.

It bought time following President Reagan’s State of the Union address on the Cable News Network and on several independent television stations in New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

The president’s address originally was scheduled for Tuesday night, but it was postponed until Feb. 4 after an explosion destroyed the space shuttle Challenger shortly after it was launched. Grace pulled its ads, and rescheduled them for next week as well.

The commercial is called ″The Deficit Trials″ and depicts children who have placed their elders on trial in the year 2017 for allowing the budget deficit to mushroom. It was shot in an abandoned church in London and was directed by Ridley Scott, who made the films ″Alien″ and ″Blade Runner.″

As the commercial begins, viewers hear an older man who is standing in an eerily lit and glass-enclosed witness box say, ″Don’t you see, no one was willing to make the sacrifices.″

A 12-year-old actor playing the role of a prosecutor replies: ″Maybe so. But I’m afraid the numbers speak for themselves. In 1986, for example, the national debt reached $2 trillion. Didn’t that frighten you?″

The accused asks before leaving the stand, ″Are you ever going to forgive us?″

The commercial ends with an announcer saying: ″You can change the future. You have to.″

Grace’s interest in the issue stems largely from its chairman and chief executive, J. Peter Grace. Grace headed a presidential commission that made 2,478 specific recommendations two years ago on how to trim the national debt by $424 billion.

On Election Night 1984, the company launched a $2.3 million ad campaign that showed two bureaucrats presenting a bill for $50,000 to a crying baby - symbolizing its share of the national debt.

That commercial generated 118,000 calls over the next year to a toll-free number from people who wanted more details about how to reduce the deficit, said Stephen Elliott, Grace’s director of corporate advertising.

The new commercial cost $300,000 to produce and $900,000 more has been set aside for buying television time, said Tony Navarro, a company spokesman. He described the commercial as a ″fantasy.″

″We don’t think this will happen, but some resentment on the part of our children will be there when they find their style of life doesn’t measure up to ours because of the debt we have left them,″ he said.

He said he did not consider the commericial controversial because it did not specify how the deficit should be reduced.

But the major networks rejected it anyway.

ABC found the ad was ″not suitable for airing in prime time,″ said Jeff Tolvin, an ABC spokesman. He said the commercial could be evaluated again if it was submitted for another time period.

NBC turned the commercial down because ″it dealt with a controversial matter,″ NBC spokesman Alan Baker said.

CBS reviewed the ad on behalf of its owned and operated stations, and refused them because ″it takes an advocacy position on an issue of considerable national controversy,″ said Pam Haslam, spokeswoman for CBS Broadcast Group.

She said the commercial was controversial because it ″dramatizes in an extreme way″ one possible consequence of continuing budget deficits.

CBS refuses to take ads on controversial issues on the theory that whoever had the most money would have an unfair advantage, she said.

Grace’s Navarro said shareholders have supported the company in its efforts to call attention to the deficit.

While other companies have tackled issues such as energy independence in print advertising, advertising industry analysts were hard-pressed to think of another that has pressed its case as Grace has in recent years on television.

Navarro said the company thinks it is appropriate to spend corporate money on the issue because the debt ″threatens the economic life of this country, and we are too large not to share in the fortunes of the country.″

But Navarro said there is a more pragmatic reason as well.

″We have found that if you take the same amount of money and spend it on standard corporate advertising, you don’t get as much attention and respect and gratitude,″ he said.


Editors’ Note: Skip Wollenberg covers trends in advertising and marketing.

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