Ad-verse Reaction

Is an animal rights billboard too explicit - or merely odious to the rodeo?

The superhot blond on the billboard peers out from under a black cowboy hat. Her bust is more than ample, her smile is sweetly suggestive, and her eyes most definitely belong in the bedroom. But scrawled in white letters next to her are the last words any man wants to hear in the afterglow of passion: "Nobody likes an eight-second ride." Underneath that naughty warning is one more phrase: "Buck the Rodeo."

Can you say double entendre?

The billboard is part of a nationwide anti-rodeo campaign waged by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. But when the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo begins next month, nobody here will see the sexy sign. The Houston branches of three national billboard companies were approached by PETA, and all three rejected the ad. While the companies say it was merely too suggestive, PETA claims billboard executives were only concerned about offending rodeo sponsors and advertisers.

The billboard that the Bayou City will never see.
The billboard that the Bayou City will never see.
The billboard that the Bayou City will never see.
The billboard that the Bayou City will never see.
The billboard that the Bayou City will never see.
The billboard that the Bayou City will never see.

The billboard brouhaha began when members of Houston Animal Rights Team (HART) contacted PETA for assistance in protesting the rodeo. PETA, based in Norfolk, Virginia, is no stranger to controversy over advertising. A recent campaign against eating meat suggested that ingesting animal flesh could cause male impotence. The billboard design featured a bikini-wearing bombshell holding several large sausages. The tagline? "I threw a party, but the cattlemen couldn't come."

"It sometimes takes sexy, fun things like that to grab attention and to ever get people to think animals might get abused," says Kristie Phelps, a PETA campaign coordinator.

According to Phelps and advertising coordinator Tracey McIntire, PETA contacted Eller Media, Lamar Outdoor Advertising and Infinity Outdoor and proposed that a billboard be placed near the rodeo before and during its three-week run. The companies referred the proposal to their local Houston offices. All three refused.

"It was very sexually suggestive in nature, and quite frankly I didn't think it would be appropriate for our market," says Michelle Costa, president of the Houston division of Eller Media. Costa stresses that Eller never takes ads for gentlemen's clubs and makes every effort to ensure its advertising messages are not offensive in any way.

But in an e-mail to McIntire at PETA, Eller account executive Chuck Goode wrote: "I am sorry to say that our Houston office has made a business decision to turn down your ad because they have many sponsors and advertisers supporting the Live Stock Show and Rodeo." Goode, who McIntire says was her Baltimore-based Eller contact about the billboard, referred all questions to Costa.

Costa acknowledges that Eller co-sponsors the rodeo's calf scramble, but denies that the relationship affected the company's decision to reject the billboard. The calf scramble -- described on the rodeo's Web site as "the most chaotic, heartwarming and exciting 10 minutes of the rodeo" -- involves 28 young 4-H or FFA scramblers trying to catch and halter 14 calves.

"Certainly from a corporate standpoint we think the rodeo does a tremendous amount of good for our community," says Costa. "But we thought the ad was inappropriate. It was very racy."

Michael Grow, South Texas general manager of Infinity Outdoor, which also rejected the ad, would say only that it is company policy to advertise goods and services, not political causes. But McIntire says PETA recently has placed ads with the Phoenix-based company.

"We have worked with them before," says McIntire. "That's not right as far as my experience."

Tom Gibbens, general manager of Lamar Advertising of Houston, the last company to reject the sign, says it was the words and not the subject matter that made the company give the sign a thumbs-down.

"I don't know how to word it," says Gibbens. "The board was, uh, it was more of a sexual phrase. And we do not promote any sexual phrases."

Gibbens says that as a member of the Harris County Outdoor Advertising Association, Lamar has promised to avoid any sexually explicit or provocative ads. Gibbens also thinks some of the animal rights activists are taking it a bit too far.

"I think it's cruel to lock up an animal in a cage and shoot it full of chemicals to see if it gets cancer," says Gibbens. "I haven't taken a company poll, but I don't think there are many people in my office who think riding a horse is unfair treatment."

Houston is not the only city to reject the buxom billboard girl. Phelps says PETA has been turned down in Cheyenne and Tucson, although it has been successful in Las Vegas and Omaha.

But the lack of billboard support isn't going to prevent members of 18-year-old HART from protesting what they believe are inhumane and cruel tactics that force rodeo animals to buck and perform. Tony Nocella, executive director of HART and a former PETA intern, says that spurs, electric prods and tail-twisting are commonplace at rodeo events and that force must be used to get normally docile animals to buck and run. As in other years, HART members plan to protest each weekend and other days when large events are taking place at the rodeo, despite the resistance they might get from rodeo-friendly fans.

"A month ago we protested at McDonald's, and one of our activists got run over," says Nocella. "And we always have the police asking us if we have anything better to do."

Leroy Shafer, assistant general manager of the rodeo, says he doesn't mind the protesters as long as they are orderly, stay outside the rodeo gates and don't impede traffic.

"Houston and Texas were founded on people speaking their minds," says Shafer.

Just as long as they don't show too much of their bodies.

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