Soundings

Norah Vincent
In-Your-Face Ads
Winter 1999

In a November New York magazine article, “Uncivil Rights: Pro-Choice Counterstrike,” journalist Nina Burleigh—notorious for writing that she would gladly “service” President Clinton à la Lewinsky to thank him for keeping abortion legal—cast a fawning eye on an aggressive new abortion rights advertising campaign sponsored by the Pro-Choice Public Education Project, a gaggle of major feminist groups. To design the campaign, the group hired the DeVito and Verdi ad agency—the same firm that riled Mayor Giuliani with bus-front ads touting New York as: “Possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn’t taken credit for.”

The pro-abortion ads are up all over the city now, and they’re at once visually jarring and deeply troubling. One ad states, “Of all the things from the 70’s [sic] to make a comeback, there’s one we really hate to see.” Beneath the text, we see, lined up from left to right, a Volkswagen bug, a lava lamp, a platform sandal—and a coat hanger. Another ad shows a group of middle-aged men in business suits, frowning. Beneath them, the text informs us that “77 percent of anti-abortion leaders are men. 100 percent of them will never be pregnant.” In a third ad in the series, a young woman sporting a tattoo and a nose ring sullenly stares out at the viewer, and the copy reads: “Think you can do whatever you want with your body? Think again.”

What’s wrong with the ad campaign? Like Burleigh’s abject offer to the president, it places this contentious issue outside the realm of reason and decorum. The abortion debate is just that: an argument, not a war. The idea shouldn’t be to win by any means necessary but to try to seek, and find, the truth. Far from searching for truth, the ads appeal to young women’s basest instincts—fear, anger, and a childish resentment of authority—as if reason no longer applied to thorny moral controversies. Once we give up on reasoned argument, though, what invariably replaces it is propaganda, seduction, and growing incivility. Debate degenerates into gladiatorial combat, and everybody loses.

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