The wind howls through the misty ruins of a once majestic public hall. A haggard old man in a glass booth faces the prosecutorial questions of a sallow lad in a dusty frock coat, as rag-clad children, huddling against the cold, look on.
It’s the Deficit Trials of the year 2017, and the defendant is in the dock because in 1986 he had failed to do anything about the $2 trillion national debt and thus paved the way for the downfall of civilization. Not a pretty picture.
This TV commercial’s fever-dream future represents the gospel according to W.R. Grace & Co., which is trying to sound the alarum with the $300,000, 60-second advertisement created by Lowe Marschalk, Inc. and directed by Ridley (Blade Runner) Scott.
The spot, however, set off different bells at the networks. NBC and CBS have refused to televise the ad. ABC offered to air it only after midnight, but Grace wants prime time. The networks decided that the advertisement deals with “a controversial issue of public importance” and thus they would be required to present opposing views; they prefer to deal with such issues on their news programs. Otherwise, says an NBC spokesman, “There’s a danger that television discussion of important public questions could become dominated by those with the most money to spend.”
If money talks, it’s no wonder that J. Peter Grace, 73, chairman of the international chemical, natural resource and consumer service conglomerate that bears his family name, is not accustomed to being silenced—and doesn’t intend to be. “We told the networks that if they could find people who are for greater deficits, we’d pay for their commercials,” says the feisty industrialist. Since President Reagan picked him in 1982 to chair the Private Sector Survey on Cost Control, better known as the Grace Commission, cutting the federal debt has been Grace’s personal crusade.
Since the networks remain unpersuaded about the ad, Grace has hired no less a legal light than Joseph A. Califano Jr. to try to talk sense to them. As Special Assistant to President Johnson and Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Carter, Califano, 55, earned himself a reputation as a leading liberal. Grace is known as a staunch conservative, but on the issue of access to the airwaves, they see eye to eye.
“It’s a commitment to public discourse and access to television and the exercise of First Amendment rights,” says Califano. “Advertisers can talk to the American people about toys and toilet tissue but not about taxes.” Califano—who, ironically, is married to the daughter of CBS chairman emeritus William S. Paley—contends that the networks’ standards for accepting or rejecting advertisements are incomprehensible. All three, for example, have accepted U.S. Committee for Energy Awareness spots touting the advantages of nuclear power.
Says Grace: “I think it’s just an issue of fairness. We feel that the American public ought to be alerted to the dangers of these deficits.” Would Grace support the right of, say, the Communist Party to run ads advocating its point of view on television? “Yeah, I think I would,” says the corporate capitalist. “It’s free speech. I believe in the American public’s good judgment.”