An archconservative women's organization has launched a campaign to remove all condom billboards in Los Angeles County, threatening to withdraw support from two county supervisors up for reelection this year unless they push for legislation to ban the ads.
The American Assn. of Women, a Santa-Monica based group that has waged a lengthy battle to protect "traditional family values" and gained a reputation for punishing any politician who does not actively support its agenda, has turned its attention to county supervisors after failing to convince the Federal Trade Commission that the billboards promote false advertising.
The battle stems from an advertising campaign sponsored by the Los Angeles County Medical Assn. and aimed at educating people about acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The billboard ads, which were unveiled in October, tell readers: "If You Can't Say No . . . Use Condoms (Rubbers), Help Prevent AIDS."
The women's group charges that the ads are immoral and misleading, saying the billboards imply that condoms will prevent exposure to AIDS and will in fact promote promiscuity among young adults. The county medical association, taking the view of U. S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, says that for people who can't or won't abstain from sex, the use of condoms is the next best preventive measure.
Leslie Dutton, president and executive director of the organization, wrote a letter to each supervisor last week, demanding that the board sponsor a resolution banning further condom billboard advertising. Dutton said that if Deane Dana and Mike Antonovich--two of the board's conservative members--don't fight to ban the billboards, then her group will campaign against them, noting "their failure to represent traditional family values." Both men are up for reelection this year.
Time to Speak Up
"We are prepared to educate the public about the stand these elected officials have taken on this matter," Dutton said. "They're letting all of this go by without so much as a whimper. Where are our conservative leaders when it comes time to uphold morality and family values in our country? This is the time for them to speak up."
Dana and Antonovich already have publicly stated that they are opposed to the ads, but that the billboards are outside the board's jurisdiction.
Dana's office is considering a resolution that would direct the county Department of Health Services to study its policy on condoms in connection with AIDS education. Dennis Morefield, Dana's spokesman, said it is unlikely that the board chairman will sponsor a resolution concerning the billboard ads. If any resolution is drafted, it will probably be presented at the supervisors' meeting Tuesday, he said.
Victoria Fouce Antonovich's aide, said that the campaign by the women's group is misdirected and should instead be aimed at the county medical association, the largest in the nation with more than 10,000 members.
"It isn't really us that they have the problem with anyway," Fouce said. "(Antonovich) has already come out against the ads. But even if we wanted to sponsor a resolution, they're aren't enough votes on the board to pass it. The basic issue here is that we don't regulate the advertising industry."
The group filed a formal complaint with the FTC in November asking for an injunction to ban the billboards, noting that "as long as there is no cure or treatment for the deadly AIDS disease, the FTC has the responsibility to protect the public from such a misleading advertising campaign. . . ."
However, the agency responded that since the county medical association is not in the business of manufacturing or selling condoms, the ads are "non-commercial" and therefore protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech.
David Zeitlin, spokesman for the medical association, said that it raised $10,000 for the ad campaign, which began in October. About 100 billboard signs went up around the county, half in English and half in Spanish. Space for the ads was donated by two billboard companies, Gannett Outdoor and the Winston Group.
Zeitlin said the ads were put up on a space-available basis and nearly all of them have already been taken down. But he added that the physicians' group has no regrets about the ad campaign, which he said has received a mostly positive response.
"I'm personally proud as hell of what we did with the campaign," Zeitlin said. "This is a vital message that we're putting out. If you don't have a cure for AIDS, then using condoms is one of the few ways to slow the spread of the disease. We're not saying that condoms prevent AIDS; we're saying condoms can help prevent AIDS.
"These women are fanatics and they're completely misguided. Nobody maintains that condoms are 100% effective, but this is one of the few ways we can help to stop the spread of the disease. These women have a different agenda, though, and they never give up."
Fred Guido, vice president of Gannett Outdoor, said that after Dutton's group complained about the ads, the company offered them billboard space to put up their own message. However, Dutton declined, saying that it would do no good to rebut the medical association's stance as long as the other billboards remained.
"Obviously I think the ads are responsible in the sense that they're being put out by the largest county medical association in the country," Guido said. "We offered them the space as a public service, and since the campaign came on the heels of the surgeon general's statement on condoms, we felt that gave them a lot of credibility."
Dutton's group has been battling AIDS-related issues and alternate life styles for some time. They have fought to get public blood supplies labeled by gender, contending that since studies show that men are more likely than women to carry the AIDS virus, potential recipients have a right to know the sex of the blood donor.
In September, a member of the group was detained by police after a rowdy demonstration at the state Republican Party convention in Anaheim when she began distributing a pamphlet charging Republican Party Chairman Robert Naylor, GOP Assembly Leader Pat Nolan and Supervisor Dana with ignoring family values in favor of protecting pornographers and homosexuals.
The group was successful in getting the Republicans to adopt two resolutions at the state convention, opposing "dial-a-porn" telephone businesses and calling for the prosecution of people who distribute "obscene" AIDS pamphlets. A third resolution calling on the party to revoke the charters of all homosexual Republican clubs was rejected.
Members of the organization, who say that they distribute their newsletter to about 24,000 people nationwide, focus most of their attention on Republicans because, they say, "the Democrats have already shown that they support the homosexual agenda."
Dutton contends that condoms have not been shown to protect people against the AIDS virus, especially in light of condoms recalled or found to be defective last year. In addition, she said, the billboards ads send a signal to children "that it's all right not to say no to sex," instead of encouraging abstinence.
"The message that they're sending out is completely wrong," Dutton said. "We're exposing children to a public message that suggests failure to practice self-control is acceptable and that it's OK to have sex as long as you're wearing a condom."
The group has been joined by like-minded conservative groups such as Californians for Community Morals, Black Americans for Family Values and California Citizens for Decency, in asking the supervisors to ban the ads.
Located Near Schools
Ezola Foster, chairman of Black Americans for Family Values and a member of Dutton's group, said that the billboards are "especially offensive" since several were placed near schools. "That is very upsetting to us," she said.
Dutton was not appeased by the fact that nearly all the ads have now been taken down, noting that they were scheduled to stay up only for a month. She said she wants county supervisors to ban future commercial condom advertising, whether or not the campaigns are related to AIDS education.
"It is our understanding that there will be brand-name condom billboards going up in January," she said. "We believe that this is because there hasn't been any opposition from political and religious leaders in Los Angeles County."
However, Guido, Gannett Outdoor's spokesman, said that the company has already placed condom ads on its billboards this year and will probably continue such campaigns.
Dutton said the group will not stop fighting the billboard ads until they are prohibited in Los Angeles County. Ironically, officials from the medical association say that the women's group's opposition has assisted the AIDS prevention campaign by drawing so much attention to the issue.
Dutton, however, remains undaunted. "If we elect conservative Republican leaders that espouse traditional family values, then we expect them to uphold those values," she said. "We're quite aware that several of the supervisors are up for reelection this year, and unless they take a leadership role on this issue, we intend to make others aware of their lack of response."