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Anti-Syphilis TV Message Finds Few Takers

Times Staff Writer

A public service ad paid for by the Los Angeles County public health agency to raise awareness about the dangers of syphilis has been rejected by local television stations that consider the content inappropriate.

County health officials had signed off on the admittedly adult-oriented spot aimed at reaching gay men who are at greatest risk of getting the disease. But they said they were frustrated by their inability to get the ads broadcast at a time when Los Angeles was struggling with a high number of syphilis cases.

“It’s distressing to hear that some important public health messages are not being aired,” said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, county public health director. “My question would be, ‘Is this content more “adult” than others that are being shown ... in the evening hours?’ ”

“I don’t find it objectionable,” he said. “Would I show it to a 4- to 5-year-old? No. But do I think it’s appropriate for an adult audience? Yes, I do.”

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The debate comes as the Federal Communications Commission has increased its scrutiny of programming in recent months, following headline-grabbing incidents such as Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl half-time show.

Last week, Viacom agreed to pay the federal government $3.5 million to settle complaints that it broadcast sexually explicit material on its radio and TV shows, though it is still fighting the $550,000 fine that resulted from the Super Bowl incident.

The 30-second syphilis public service spot features “Phil the Sore,” a lumpy, red cartoon character with an earring, who follows two men going home together. As the men later part, one of them, dressed in a bathrobe and underwear, says, “Let’s do it again sometime.” Phil then calls in his whole family, whose members carry boxes labeled “brain damage,” “rash” and “blindness” -- all potential results of syphilis.

Public health officials said they worked with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation to develop a campaign to combat the sexually transmitted disease after a dramatic rise in cases beginning in 2000, mostly among gay men. The agency said countywide early syphilis cases reported for that group grew from 93 to 364 between 2000 and 2003. This year, the numbers have dipped slightly to 254.

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In the general population, reported cases rose from 256 to 535 between 2000 and 2003, then declined to 407 this year.

Broadcasters, however, said they considered the ad in poor taste. KCBS-TV Channel 2 spokesman Mike Nelson said he was troubled that the ad took such a light-hearted tone about a serious disease. He denied that recent FCC actions had any effect on the station’s evaluation of the ad.

“We found it to be inappropriate for a broadcast audience,” Nelson said. “We consider the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases to be a serious matter. It’s an issue we have addressed and will continue to recognize through fair, accurate and balanced news reporting, as well as broadcasting public service announcements.”

Despite pleas from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, none of the five local television stations that were approached -- including affiliates for NBC, Fox, UPN and the WB -- have run the ad. Two, however, have said they would consider showing the spot between 11:30 p.m. and 5 a.m., an offer that health officials said was not satisfactory because so few people would see it.

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KNBC-TV Channel 4 spokeswoman Erin Dittman said her station rejected a request to run the spot during prime-time’s “Will & Grace,” a show that features gay characters. But Dittman said the ad could run much later -- sometime after midnight.

The groups were able to get several cable stations, whose content is not regulated by the FCC, to air the spot.

When network TV and radio stations’ licenses come up for review every seven years, the FCC takes into account public complaints, said Christie Nordhielm, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Michigan. As a result, television stations don’t want to take any risks.

“It’s an easy decision,” she said. “Between running the ad and getting money and the risk of losing their license or paying lawyers, they’re going to reject the ad. It’s a no-brainer.”

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Officials at the American Family Assn., a Tupelo, Miss.-based organization that has pushed for the tightening of FCC standards on decency, expressed support for the stations’ stance on the syphilis ads.

But the organization’s president, Tim Wildmon, said he was surprised that the ad had raised hackles in Los Angeles.

“That’s a pretty liberal, socially liberal place,” he said. “We’re not talking about the heartland or the South. It’s good at least the station managers and operators are giving consideration to taste and appropriateness and seriousness. That’s at least refreshing.”

Wildmon said he thought the ad did not take the disease seriously enough and seemed to embrace promiscuous sex.

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“I think if you’re going to deal with something like this, you need to deal with it in a more serious manner,” he said.

Citing the part in the spot where one man says to another, “Let’s do it again sometime,” Wildmon said, “This doesn’t address the root of the problem. The root of the problem is ... sexual activity.”

Les Pappas, creative director at the San Francisco ad agency that created the spot, said the anti-syphilis message had already been toned down.

Two and a half years ago, Better World Advertising and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation presented both Los Angeles and San Francisco health departments with a “Healthy Penis” campaign featuring a smiling cartoon penis. San Francisco officials accepted the ads, calling them “fun.” But Los Angeles wanted a more conservative version and went with “Stop the Sores.”

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Pappas and officials of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation said they wanted the “Stop the Sores” campaign to grab attention and chose to give the message a playful tone.

Karen Mall of the healthcare foundation said she believed the campaign had been a success with its billboards and public appearances by a 6-foot-tall “Phil the Sore” mascot.

A survey in 2003 showed that gay men who had seen the campaign messages were three times more likely to get tested for syphilis.

To view the public service spot, go to latimes.com/syphilis.

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