PRESS

The pro-life boycott

Val Ross January 30 1984
PRESS

The pro-life boycott

Val Ross January 30 1984

The pro-life boycott

PRESS

Val Ross

Editors and publishers are usually pleased when controversial articles capture the public’s attention. A flood of reader mail is a good indicator that their medium is being noticed. But for the past ten months the Canadian magazine industry has been unnerved by a little-publicized campaign against Homemaker's magazine, an advertiser-supported women’s magazine that is distributed free to 1,300,000 Canadian homes. Offended by two columns in the March and April, 1983, issues that dealt sympathetically with abortion,

Campaign Life, the national anti-abortion lobby, immediately asked its 20,000 members to boycott products advertised in the magazine. As well, it inundated the companies that advertise in the Toronto-based

monthly magazine with angry letters.

The campaign has been so vigorous that in its current newsletter the Advertising Advisory Board, which acts as a spokesman for the industry, published a statement condemning the tactic. The board took a stand, according to AAB interim President Robert Oliver, “because the possibility of inviting advertisers to dictate editorial policy struck us as appalling.” Added Jeffrey Shearer, executive vice-president of Homemaker's publisher, Toronto-based Comae Communications Ltd: “The threat is to the very principles of freedom of the press.” *

Many journalists have already discovered what it means to attract the ire of the tireless pro-life lobby. Said Campaign Life’s national president, Toronto-based salesman James Hughes: “We have about 20,000 members—that is more than enough to monitor every radio and TV station, every newspaper and magazine for pro-abortion bias.” Whenever the group finds what it considers to

*Comac, owned by Bell Canada Enterprises Inc., also publishes Quest, City Woman and Western Living.

be bias, it unleashes its “mail squad”— the term Edmonton Journal columnist June Sheppard, who has been a Campaign Life target, uses to describe the group’s tireless letter writers.

But Campaign Life’s ad boycott against Homemaker's is unique. Referring to the two-inch-thick stack of antiabortion mail he has received, Murray Stewart, corporate public relations manager of Canada Packers Inc.., a Homemaker's advertiser, said, “We have not seen this sort of activity from any other group.” Ted Lang, president of Carnation Inc., agreed. “Such pressure is unheard-of,” he said. Last August Carnation informed Campaign Life that it would not be advertising one of its products, evaporated milk, in Homemaker's in 1984. Lang insists that the decision was made independently of the boycott. But, he added, “If a magazine makes its readers mad, we are reluctant to advertise in it.”

Homemaker's very dependence on— and therefore vulnerability to—advertisers as a “controlled circulation” magazine made it an attractive target. Said Campaign Life’s legal adviser, Gwendo-

lyn Landolt: “Homemaker's exists only because advertisers are its sole support.” Last week, Comae’s Shearer cautioned that it was difficult to assess whether or not the magazine had actually lost potential advertising sales. Said Shearer: “No advertiser will say specifically that. But some are annoyed by what they perceive as blackmail, while others have asked me whether everybody out there feels the same way as the letter writers do about the issue.” Still others would prefer to withdraw entirely from the heat of controversy. Linda Watson, advertising and merchandising manager for Fisher-Price Canada, the toy manufacturer, told Maclean's last week, “We have asked Homemaker's to make us aware if they are doing any abortion articles in future so we can reconsider advertising in that issue.”

It is not yet clear whether Campaign Life’s claim to a successful boycott is justified. Advertising sales figures for 1983 indicate that Homemaker's sales kept pace with the rest of the industry, rising by about 3.5 per cent—but they cannot reveal whether or not the magazine would have done even better without the boycott. The more important question is whether there was damage of a more insidious sort—journalistic self-censorship. Judith Finlayson, a Toronto Globe and Mail columnist, is one of many journalists who have felt the strength of the anti-abortion crusade. After writing a pro-abortion column, she received a flood of anti-abortion letters, some of which “made me fear for my safety,” she said. Said Finlayson: “I am not avoiding writing about the topic. But you do take a deep breath before doing it again.”

Campaign Life insists that a previous ad boycott which it organized against Homemaker's in 1976 kept the abortion issue out of the magazine’s pages until the two offending columns appeared in the spring of 1983. Responded Homemaker's Editor Jane Gale: “Well, they certainly did not shut us up. The issue of choice was part of the fabric of our other stories. In fact, I was surprised that they waited this long to start on us again.”

For its part, Campaign Life is continuing the boycott and the monitoring of Homemaker's contents. Said national president Hughes: “We will see how they deal with the upcoming [Henry] Morgentaler abortion clinic trials. That will be the real test.” But by now the boycott itself is being monitored—by nervous journalists. Advertiser influence is what “we spend our lives fighting,” said Peter Desbarats, dean of journalism at the University of Western Ontario. “The real onus is on the magazine to stick to its guns.”