As this country ages away from its founders’ vision, we get more and more ambivalent about free speech. Examples abound, but today’s story (possibly $$) about Vogue and Glamour‘s publishers’ statements supporting a refusal to stop running ads for cigarettes helps illuminate the labyrinth our culture is building to deal with unpopular speech.
The leader of a group of U.S. representatives that has been asking women’s magazines to voluntarily give up cigarette advertising said she is unsatisfied with publishers’ response — or, more often, their lack of response.
“I am extremely disappointed with the decision of these 11 women’s magazines to continue running ads promoting cigarette smoking,” said Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., in her third and latest open letter. “These ads encourage a fatally addictive habit and are especially targeted at young women. It’s just flat-out hypocritical to run stories about becoming more beautiful and healthy while promoting a dangerous product responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of people a year.”
Vogue’s response was disturbing. Despite his industry’s reliance on the First Amendment, publisher Thomas A. Florio wants Congress to punch a hole in it. He objects to being pressured politically to withdraw the ad on his own, but he doesn’t object to being compelled to do so by law.
Vogue Publisher Thomas A. Florio suggested that Congress pass new restrictions on tobacco advertising instead of trying to shame magazines.
“As members of the media, we at Vogue continue to practice our right of freedom of the press, expressing our views on such topics without pressure from, or regard for, a company who may advertise in Vogue, now or in the future,” Mr. Florio said in a letter dated Aug. 7 and provided today by Ms. Capps. “In our opinion, however, the goal of Congress should be to create legal guidelines for the marketing, distribution and sale of tobacco products, rather than to bring pressure on a magazine to forgo its legal right to conduct business as approved by lawmakers of the United States.”
Glamour sought shelter in the fact that their magazine writes hard-hitting news stories about cigarettes and lung cancer. And that’s why girls line up every month to buy Glamour — to read its articles about smoking.
Glamour Editor in Chief Cynthia Leive wrote Ms. Capps that her magazine’s editorial consistently cautions women about the dangers of smoking, citing examples like an August 2007 feature, “The #1 Cancer Killing Young Women and How to Beat It.” But smoking remains a personal choice and the Camel ads in question are legal, Ms. Leive said.
Ms. Capps didn’t sound impressed today. “Incredibly, Glamour and Vogue continue to assert that they can report and editorialize on the dangers of smoking simultaneously accepting enticing advertisements for the very product they pretend to decry,” she said, going on to leave the door open on W and heap scorn on the magazines that didn’t respond: Cosmopolitan, Elle, InStyle, Interview, Lucky, Marie Claire, Soap Opera Digest and Us Weekly.
It remains to be seen what further pressure, if any, Ms. Capps and her colleagues can apply, but she said she would try. “In the coming weeks we will continue to highlight the hypocrisy of these magazines’ actions and pursue alternative means to encourage them to do the right thing,” she wrote.
Everyone sees the game these magazines are playing. They know like they know the sun rises over the East River each morning that fashion-conscious girls start smoking to keep weight off; and that virtually all fashion models smoke as part of the cost of doing business.
The cigarette companies are not so much trying to entice girls to smoke — that sale’s been made — as to switch to their brand. The battle for market share will be fought in the medium where smokers can be found. The same magazines carry ads for low-calorie packaged foods and for diet programs. All of these advertisers are fishing where the fish are.
Vogue’s publisher knows, too, that Rep. Capps doesn’t have a prayer of actually passing a law to ban cigarette advertising — and in fact I don’t think she’s proposed one. Cigarettes themselves will be outlawed before their ads are. But I found Florio’s “go ahead, censor me” dare a chilling jinx.
If Vogue and Glamour want to keep cigarette advertising revenue flowing in, then defend it on free-speech grounds. If running cigarette ads give these publishers moral qualms — and PR problems — then they should pull them. Don’t tempt Congress into gutting the First Amendment just to take you off the hook for your own moral fecklessness.