Executing the Truth in Ads
Excited and enthusiastic looks radiate on the faces of the white, middle-class family of four -- mom and dad, brother and sis -- as they crowd together on a couch opposite their television set with a bowl of popcorn. Because of the angle of the TV, the action on the screen is unseen, but the room is illuminated by light bursting out of the set. It appears the viewers can barely contain themselves until whatever they are waiting for happens.
Aside from that, there is precious little information on the grainy black-and-white poster that arrived at the Houston Press offices last week; that is, with the exception of a few nondescript boxed words at the bottom that read like an upcoming pay-per-view boxing match: Closed Circuit Event/The Execution of Timothy McVeigh/Monday June 11th/ 7AM. Under the box is an attribution line: PAID FOR BY CITIZENS FOR CAPITAL PUNISHMENT.
At first glance, that seems to make sense. Here is a depiction of an all-American nuclear unit glued to its television set in a state of rapturous anticipation, awaiting the death by lethal injection of Oklahoma City federal building bomber McVeigh.
Only problem is, it appears there is next to nothing to prove that Citizens for Capital Punishment actually exists. A check by the Press for some sort of de rigueur Web site turned up nothing. Likewise, a review of news articles over the past 20 or so years via the Nexis-Lexis research service also failed to uncover even a single mention of any organization with the Citizens for Capital Punishment moniker. However, those facts did not deter the president of a Chicago-based advertising agency from insisting that CFDP does exist, and that it is not merely a rather disingenuous effort by anti-death-penalty forces to portray death penalty proponents as possessing some sort of blood lust, whether they do or not.
"It's a little bit odd," admits Tom Ungar of The Ungar Group, who claims the pro-death-penalty group was formed only recently. "They didn't want to have a lot of public exposure for themselves right now. They didn't want to take anything away from the actual news itself."
As for the unmitigated pleasure the viewers in the ads seem to be deriving from witnessing McVeigh's execution, Ungar says he believes that scene is a true and accurate depiction of many pro-death-penalty supporters.
"It's not blood lust; it's not savagery," insists Ungar. "It's something that confirms that justice seems to have finally been upheld."
Ungar adds that the poster went out to newspapers around the country, including several in Texas, "primarily because Texas seems to be the leading proponent of capital punishment."
If that is the case, why then, Ungar was asked, was the group wasting time sending the posters to a state where so many people already support the death penalty?
"It's always nice to have points of view that are reaffirmed," explains Ungar. He adds that the poster was shipped to New York and California. The ad agency also attempted to use the poster in full-page advertisements in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today. However, a press release by The Ungar Group states that the ad was "flat-out" rejected by all three papers.
Spokespersons for both The New York Times and USA Today confirm the ad was rejected. A Wall Street Journal official says the paper could find no record of having been contacted about the advertisement.
Upon learning of Ungar's predicament, Joe Espelage, a Houston Press retail advertising representative, contacted Ungar and offered to let The Ungar Group purchase space for the ad in this paper. Unfortunately for Espelage, Ungar rejected him flat-out.
"I told him that I thought the ad was brilliant, and asked him if he had a media budget to place it in the Houston Press," says Espelage. "He said, no, that the Terre Haute [Indiana] paper was the only paper that he had budgeted for. Which I found a little shocking since, in the press release, he mentioned being rejected by The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today -- which are, of course, a lot more expensive than our paper to advertise in."
Indeed, the Terre Haute Tribune-Star is the only paper in the country where the full-page ad will appear. Terre Haute, of course, is the home of the United States' federal death row and the site of the McVeigh execution. Tribune-Star advertising director Chris Voccio acknowledges that the Indiana town has been a media circus during the past couple of months but says he had no idea that his was the only paper scheduled to print the ad.
"The publisher and I reviewed it," says Voccio. "We didn't necessarily agree with its message. In fact, we even questioned what its message was. We decided to go ahead and allow them to run it."
Voccio didn't bother to check whether there is in fact such a group as Citizens for Capital Punishment.
As for the Press's skepticism about the existence of the group, Ungar promised he'd have someone from Citizens for Capital Punishment get back to us. No one did.
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