One advertisement from the Virginia Electric and Power Co. said "Boo" and the other said "Click." A consumer group yesterday called them part of "a campaign of fear" and said electricity consumers should not have to pay for either.
The two full-page ads, which have appeared in several Virginia and Washington newspapers since September, "seek public support for Vepco's side" of the controversy over nuclear power safety, according to Consumer Congress.
The Falls Church and Tidewater organization, which claims 3,000 subscribers, asked the Virginia State Corporation Commission to forbid Vepco to charge its customers for the advertisements' cost. The group also asked the SCC to come up with a rule and guidelines on the subject of controversial advertising.
"The only thing really frightening about nuclear power is the thought of facing the 1980s without it," said the text of the "Boo" ad, which appeared in The Washington Post Sept. 22 and Oct. 13, as well as in other papers. It featured a photo of a nuclear plant with "Boo" in seven-inch letters across the top.
The "one fact that stands out about nuclear generation is that it's safe," the advertisement continued. "The scientific problems of storing nuclear waste were solved years ago . . . If we are going to have the electricity we'll need in the 1960s, we'll need nuclear power as part of a balanced generating system."
The "Click" had showed the word on a blacked-out page. "Why build any more of those expensive generating, plants for 10 years down the road? Why don't we just turn out the lights and go home?" the display asked. The solution to "keeping the lights on" for the future is "nuclear, coal, hydro-pumped storage and more conservation," it went on.
Consumer Congress called the ads one-sided and too short to be informative and asserted that they appeal to the emotions.
"They are scare tactics, and Vepco is using them to frighten people into supporting their policies and decision to create a nuclear future for the commonwealth," the group said. "Rate payers should not be forced to pay for ads which are primarily in the utility's self-interest."
Vepco advertising manager Hank Holloway said the advertisements "are not promoting anything. They are simple statements of fact on the energy situation and how it affects our customers." He said Vepco planned to continue using the ads as long as they are effective.
Utility advertising has caused controversy in virtually every state, according to a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, the industry trade association. State supreme court rulings in Ohio and Oklahoma recently content of utility ads. But many states have set up guidelines of the sort the Consumer Congress wants the State Corporation Commission to produce for Virginia.
Consumers in most states pay for "educational" or "public service" ads through their utility bills, while financing for "political" or "load increase" or "controversial" ads must come from utility stockholders, the LEI spokesman explained. State guidelines set definitions for these categories and allocated spending accordingly.
In Virginia, the State Corporation Commission decides whether overall spending for advertising is justifiably included in the list of expenses for which consumers must pay. "Utilities will continue to bear the burden of justifying ad expenses for rate-setting purposes," said John Daffron, director of the SCC's public information office.
"Money for ads can be thrown out as a normal business expense (that consumers would pay), and the stockholders would pick it up," Daffron said. "They (Vepco) can advertise anything they want to, but what's viable expense for rate-making purposes is another matter."
The commission could decide to call hearings on the issue, he said, but noted that no formal request had been received from the Consumer Congress.
Vepco's Holloway said the 1977 advertising budget was just over $1 million, while the cost of the "Boo" and "Click" ad compaign was $140,000. An average customer who uses 900 kilowatts per months pays 31 cents per year toward Vepco advertising, he said.