In the latest controversy to swirl around President Clinton's anti-drug ad campaign, Black Entertainment Television is refusing to air ads for the initiative.
BET said it should get more money than the White House is willing to spend with the network and blames the shortfall on racial prejudice. In fact, BET wants a bigger slice of the budget than any other cable network is getting because of its reach among African-Americans.
"You snubbed your nose towards us with tokenism," Louis Carr, BET exec VP-broadcast media sales, wrote in a letter to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The anti-drug office counters that the network is overstating its clout and contends it can efficiently reach minorities through other media outlets. Last week, the office moved to reallocate $800,000 it had earmarked to spend on BET to other minority-owned media.
The White House also came under fire last week for its policy of allowing TV networks that use anti-drug themes in programs to run fewer public service ads. That practice, first reported by Advertising Age in July 1998, gives the networks more time to sell to paying advertisers.
Under the government's anti-drug advertising program, media companies are required to provide a free anti-drug ad or related anti-drug programming for every paid ad. Some programming executives said last week they were unaware the networks were using their programs to meet that requirement.
'TOTAL LACK OF RESPECT'
BET received $750,000 in anti-drug ads last year, but had demanded a $5 million buy for the period that started last fall. The network refused to bend from that position in negotiations with Muse Cordero Chen & Partners, the Los Angeles-based agency that handles media buys aimed at minority audiences.
"Your offer of $800,000 shows the real commitment ONDCP has towards the war of drugs in the African-American community," Mr. Carr wrote in his letter to the anti-drug office, a copy of which was obtained by Advertising Age. "It also shows the total lack of respect you have for black media professionals. As a company, we have been in a fight to get marketers to respect and value the consumers we represent. We are going to continue this fight, especially against government agencies that use taxpayers dollars in a discriminatory and prejudiced manner."
Alan Levitt, director of the drug office's media program, said African-Americans get more attention from the drug office than any other ethnic group. Some $25 million of the $152 million spent annually on the campaign targets that audience, he said, compared to $10 million spent to reach Hispanics.
Mr. Levitt said while $4.4 million is set aside for African-American-owned media, that group is also reached through other mainstream media vehicles. BET's demand for more money wasn't supported, he said, by evidence that increased spending would increase efficiency in reaching that audience.
"More blacks watch MTV than watch BET," he said, a contention Mr. Carr denied. Total spending on MTV is $3.4 million, less than the $5 million BET wants. "There was no rationale. There was no way to justify it," said Mr. Levitt, of BET's demand. "We are the most closely scrutinized advertising campaign in government."
Mr. Levitt also suggested that BET alone among 2,300 media outlets failed to comply with the government's requirement that networks provide a free 30-second anti-drug ad or related programming for every ad bought.
"They wanted to be treated like any other network, but didn't act like one," he said.
Mr. Carr denied that charge and said BET offered value-added programming and events. BET held to its demand for $5 million because it believes the government undervalued its audience.
"We rejected their offer because we didn't feel that was adequate to influence the African-American community vs. the problem in the African-American community," said Mr. Carr. "We understand that you can reach African-Americans through broadcast TV, but to influence them on such an emotional issue, we feel that it takes media that have an attachment to them, created by them and for them."
The issue of whether African-Americans can be reached effectively by advertisers through mainstream media is an extremely sensitive one. Many black media and marketing executives are outraged by that view and stress the need to use targeted media and creative.
"There's reach and effective reach. That is what many advertisers don't understand," said Don Coleman, CEO of Don Coleman Advertising, Southfield, Mich., an African-American agency in which True North Communications holds a 49% stake.
"There may be more relevancy and effectiveness when it comes on BET, particularly with a young audience who saw rap and hip-hop created on the network," he added. "They do watch it on MTV, but there is more a relative community bond on BET."
Mr. Coleman said he hopes BET and the White House can resolve their differences. "Both parties should get together for the good of constituents," he said.
Mr. Carr said BET aired anti-drug programming and messages before the White House effort began and will continue to do such even without the paid ads.
Copyright January 2000, Crain Communications Inc.