News: What's Your Sign?

Grassroots political groups learn how to advertise

Oct 20, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Bonnie Davis

Chris Cuomo (front) and Karen Kahle of Women of Ohio and the World fight to give women a voice.

Two Cincinnati women waging a campaign against the Bush election campaign discovered that free speech often depends on who owns the advertising medium.

Women of Ohio and the World (WOO), a nonprofit political organization based in Cincinnati, faced challenges when they tried to encourage opposition to President Bush. One of their first ideas — to put ads on Metro buses — failed because of a policy created in 1998 allowing only commercial advertising.

The rule is bad public policy, according to Chris Cuomo, a philosophy professor at the University of Cincinnati and co-founder of WOO.

"It shuts down public dialogue, especially from the community that primarily uses the buses," she says.

Sallie Hilvers, director of public affairs for Metro, describes the policy as a way to draw "a bright line" so it's easy for the bus company to say what it will accept and what it won't.

"If we started accepting non-commercial advertising — for instance, for a legitimate health organization for children — then what if the KKK wanted to buy space?," Hilvers says. "The intent was to keep our buses neutral."

Not being able to advertise freely on buses disenfranchises certain citizens, according to Karen Kahle, chair of WOO.

"The reason we wanted to get our message on the buses was because of our priorities to reach African Americans and people of color," she says.

The policy was created as a result of lawsuits about bus advertisement in the 1990s, Hilvers says.

"We are not in the business of public forum, but public transportation," she says.

'Good corporate citizens'
WOO also experienced difficulty promoting its opposition to Bush on a privately owned billboard but eventually reached a compromise. Norton Outdoor Advertising originally rejected a billboard design that featured Bush's face scratched out by pink crayon.

The company doesn't want to restrict free speech but wants to keep ads at an acceptable level for anyone who sees them, according to Mike Norton, vice president of Norton Outdoor Advertising.

"We are a very conservative town, and we have to be cognitive to that," he says. "When we get into politics, we want to keep the ads more positive. We don't want to offend citizens of our community. We are just trying to be good corporate citizens."

WOO couldn't legally put up an ad that said to vote for Sen. John Kerry, because its nonprofit status was granted under section 527 of the IRS code, which prohibits endorsement of candidates.

After WOO redesigned its ad, Norton accepted it, and a billboard went up on Mitchell Avenue near Winton Place. Cincinnatians can expect to see more, Cuomo and Kahle say.

WOO isn't the only organization that's seen its free speech tested in Cincinnati.

Viacom Outdoor recently rejected an ad campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The ads, already running in St. Louis, feature a photo of the late President Reagan and the message, "Win One for the Gipper — Animal Fats Double the Risk of Alzheimer's." The ads list a Web site for information on the alleged connection between animal fats and the disease, which led to Reagan's death.

Expand the conversation
WOO evolved from just an idea to a functioning organization within a month.

"I thought, rather than getting mad and throwing a shoe at the television every time I heard George W. Bush's voice, I would help do something about him," Kahle says.

Voter education remains the organization's primary goal.

"We want to remind people of how bad the Bush policies have been for women, working people and people of color," Cuomo says. "We want to bring together local progressive interests to have a bigger impact. People who are disappointed feel like they don't have a voice. Our group gives a voice to that."

Only 22 percent of single women voted in the 2000 election, Kahle says.

"That statistic compelled me to start WOO because it's an appallingly low number," she says.

WOO's emphasis is on giving women a voice.

"A lot of women are saying the candidates aren't speaking to our issues," Cuomo says. "It's important for us to get them to speak to us. As an educator, I am particularly interested in closing that gender gap."

Cuomo cites the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Election Survey, which found women were 7.5 percent less likely than men to know presidential candidates' positions on an array of issues.

"Women should know more," Cuomo says. "It affects our life more."

Cuomo says she doesn't hate Bush.

"I don't know him enough to have an emotional response to him," she says. "These are just men. It's absurd that one man holds so much power. Too much emphasis is put on the individual."

'I want Bush out'
The women of WOO also talk about the election's importance for the rest of the world.

"Electing our president has a huge impact on the rest of the world, especially women and children," Cuomo says. "We don't want to ignore that. We see it as a responsibility."

American ideals don't match up to current American policies, according to Kahle.

"Americans are truly upset about our diminished reputation in the world and our imperialistic policies," she says. "Not just how we're perceived, but how we're behaving in the world."

Kahle says WOO wants to energize voters who are against Bush. She points out that most of the flood of newly registered voters are Democrats but that many times newly registered voters don't make it to the polls.

WOO has received some negative mail but a lot more positive response, Cuomo says.

"Our campaign has already expanded the local conversations about the issues," she says.

WOO has already held several events, and more are listed on its Web site (

"People think its up to Kerry or Edwards to criticize the Bush Admini-stration," Cuomo says. "I want George Bush out of the White House just as much as they do." ©