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Non-Profit Group Fishing for a Controversy

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Oceana's advertisements did run on local bus shelters for a few days before they were pulled.
  • Oceana's advertisements did run on local bus shelters for a few days before they were pulled.

Is there something fishy about the fact that local advertising firms are refusing to run ads targeting Giant Eagle? Or is a nonprofit organization throwing around a red herring?

When Oceana, an international nonprofit group dedicated to preserving ocean life, sought to pressure Giant Eagle grocery stores with a billboard campaign, its ads were rejected.

The group suspects the ads -- which sound the alarm over mercury levels in seafood -- were quashed after pressure from the regional supermarket giant.

"I just can't help thinking that these companies didn't think twice about taking our money until they got a phone call," says Jackie Savitz, a senior scientist with Oceana.

Giant Eagle is a prominent local advertiser -- on billboards and in City Paper -- but advertising executives say that's not why they refused the ads. The ads, they say, sought not to spread a message but to attack a company.

"We are more than happy to help Oceana if their goal is to educate parents about the dangers of mercury," says Stan Geier, general manager of Lamar's Pittsburgh office. "We told them that. However, they didn't want to remove Giant Eagle from the ad. So that told me the goal wasn't education; it was to slap Giant Eagle in the face."

The Food and Drug Administration requires grocery stores to warn customers about the dangers of mercury in seafood, particularly to children and pregnant women. (The pollutant, which can become concentrated in the fatty tissue of fish, may cause birth defects and developmental problems.) Giant Eagle fulfills the requirement by displaying six-page brochures, entitled "What you need to know about mercury in fish and shellfish," at seafood counters and frozen-food cases.

Oceana's advertisements did run on local bus shelters for a few days before they were pulled.
  • Oceana's advertisements did run on local bus shelters for a few days before they were pulled.
Oceana, however, argues that stores should use higher-visibility signs to warn customers. The campaign targets shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish, all of which are known to have extremely high levels of mercury. Savitz says several large food retailers -- including Safeway, Albertson's and Whole Foods -- have agreed to post in-store signs.

"We have talked to Giant Eagle and they keep saying they have a brochure and that their seafood employees can answer questions," says Savitz. "But most people don't know that there's an issue, so they're not going to pick up a brochure.

"Signs are the best way to get the word out."

Accordingly, Oceana sought to use signs to get the word out about its disagreement with Giant Eagle. Initially, the nonprofit contracted with Lamar for a series of billboards around the region. "We didn't think there would be problems, because Lamar ran the exact same signs for us in Florida against another grocery-store chain," Savitz says.

But Lamar officials told the group the ads violated a policy against using another company's name in an ad.

Lamar's Geier says that he never spoke with Giant Eagle, but that the ad was an unfair attack on the grocer.

The ad, which features the silhouette of a pregnant woman, features Giant Eagle's name on top. Oceana's plea -- to "post FDA's warnings about mercury at seafood counters" -- appears beneath in smaller red type. Below that, the ad warns that "Mercury hurts kids" in a larger, bold font; the word "mercury" appears in red. To Geier's eyes, the different typefaces de-emphasize the plea Oceana supposedly wants to make ... and telegraphs a different message entirely.

"If you look at the ad, the way it's set up, you see 'Giant Eagle hurts kids,'" says Geier.

Such explanations don't satisfy Oceana: "I just don't buy it," Savitz says. "Everything was fine for months until we get ready to run the ads." But Geier says that while an ad may be planned for months, the copy often isn't seen until the last minute. That was the case here, he says, adding that decisions made in Florida have little bearing on circumstances here: Each regional GM has discretion over which ads to run.

In any case, Oceana received a similar response from other ad firms locally.

Once the billboards fell through, Savitz says the group contacted Clear Channel Communications through a broker about buying outdoor advertising on bus shelters. This time, the ads made it onto the streets, at least for a few days. She says she later received a call from Clear Channel saying the ads had been pulled because they were inaccurate; Oceana wasn't given a chance to change them, she adds. Clear Channel did not return calls seeking comment.

Oceana made a final effort to place ads with a third company, Heffner Outdoor Advertising. Those ads, Savitz says, were also killed at the last minute. Barry Heffner, owner for the company, says he declined the ad because "it seemed to be an attack on a single company more than a statement on an industry problem.

"I gave them the option of changing the copy and they declined," Heffner says. "I saw the copy when I returned from vacation and, after discussing it with my family, I decided against running it. They wouldn't take the company's name out of it, so to me, that says it was clearly an attack."

Savitz freely admits the ads are meant to pressure Giant Eagle, and says naming names is the only way to stimulate change.

"Mercury can harm a fetus and ... Giant Eagle should make sure people are clearly aware of that," she says. "Pressuring Giant Eagle publicly is the only way that we can get them to post these warnings."

Giant Eagle spokesman Dick Roberts says that to his knowledge, the grocer never spoke to Lamar or any other company about Oceana's advertisements. He says the six-page foldout brochure is the best way to inform the public. (And the brochures do appear to be widely available: When City Paper checked the seafood sections of a half-dozen Giant Eagle locations, brochures were visible in each.)

"Giant Eagle spends a tremendous amount of time and effort to make sure their employees are trained to answer any questions a customer might have," Roberts says. "That may not be the manner that Oceana wants the information presented, but Giant Eagle believes they've been living with their customers for 75 years and it's being done in a way that best works for their customers. The company believes the pamphlet provides more information than a sign would, and that, along with employee training, is a better combination."

Savitz says Oceana strongly disagrees ... and that all it wanted was to air its disagreement in public.

"Whatever happened to the freedom to express minority opinions?" Savitz asks. "This isn't about not eating fish -- people should eat fish as part of a healthy diet -- but there are restrictions. This is about saving kids."

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