An intense battle over a D.C. voter initiative that would mandate deposits on beverage containers has switched into high gear with industry opponents unleashing a barrage of television and radio advertisements that could make their campaign the most expensive ever mounted in the city.
Advocates of the measure, which would place deposits ranging from 5 cents to 20 cents on beer and soft drink containers, complain that beverage giants such as Coca-Cola Co., Pepsi-Cola Co. and Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. trying to buy defeat for Initiative 28, scheduled to appear on the Nov. 3 ballot.
The brewers, beverage makers and trade groups representing can and bottle manufacturers have paid for two television ads scheduled to run through Election Day, in addition to continuing antideposit messages on numerous radio stations. With at least $1.1 million in expenditures so far, they are outspending deposit advocates nearly 15 to 1 and may top the city's spending record, set by Mayor Marion Barry in his $1.2 million reelection campaign last year.
Critics say the industry coalition is composed of corporations that have a direct financial interest in the outcome of the initiative vote but give no hint of their involvement in their advertising campaign -- which is attributed in the ads to the Clean Capital City Committee, an industry-financed group.
Illustrating the point was an incident last week, when radio station WTOP briefly suspended airing Clean Capital advertisements after it was alleged that payment for nearly $30,000 worth of radio air time came directly from Mid-Atlantic Coca-Cola in Richmond, with no mention of that fact in the ads.
The suspension was the result of confusion over the involvement of the agency placing Clean Capital's ads -- Pro Media in Silver Spring -- which doubles as the in-house agency for Mid-Atlantic Coca-Cola and draws its checks on the corporate account in Richmond. The chairman of Clean Capital, John Downs, is a Mid-Atlantic vice president for public relations.
Deposit advocates claimed that the ads violated federal communications law, but WTOP officials said the ads were resumed after Clean Capital was able to show that it had paid for the ads by producing the check the committee had given to Pro Media to cover the cost.
The bottle deposit contest so far echoes previous bottle deposit conflicts around the nation. Since 1970, when the first such legislation was proposed in Oregon, environmentalists contending that deposits help reduce litter and curb waste disposal costs have engaged in pitched battles with Coke, Pepsi, Anheuser-Busch and various retail and trade groups, which counter that deposit laws merely jack up prices and create an inconvenience for shoppers.
Most observers agree that the central issue is whether the cost of dealing with trash generated by beverage containers should be borne by industry through collection and recycling at the retail level, or by taxpayers through voluntary public recycling efforts and government garbage disposal.
Since the beginning of the D.C. campaign in April, when Initiative 28 was approved as a ballot issue, deposit advocates have cried foul over the industry's advertising and other tactics, which they contend are based on paid community support and distorted claims about the effects of deposit laws.
"The industry says some pretty outrageous things in their ads," said Jonathan Puth, a leader of the prodeposit group. "The ads are full of distortions and half-truths."
But the industry side responds with an almost identical charge. "I think the important thing is we have to overcome an inordinate amount of distortion and misinformation," said Ed Arnold, a D.C. media consultant hired to represent the industry group. "The only way we can do that is to use our resources."
The industry's new television commercials are believed to have cost more than $300,000 -- or more than four times the entire amount raised thus far by deposit advocates -- with 91 spots on WRC (Channel 4) costing $166,050; 76 spots on WJLA (Channel 7) for $107,653 and other spots at an undisclosed price on WTTG (Channel 5).
A spokesman for WUSA (Channel 9) said the industry group tried to place ads on that station, but the station said it does not accept commercials for issue campaigns.
One of the industry ads purports to show typical D.C. residents in "man on the street" interviews giving various reasons why they are against Initiative 28.
Arnold acknowledged that the people shown in the ads were paid "a pittance" for what he said was their permission to use the material. But at least one of those who appears in the ad, Anne Fogel, a copy aide at The Washington Post, said she agreed to deliver her lines only in exchange for a $40 fee.
Fogel said she was approached by a friend who works for the producer of the ad, who "told me they needed a white female and they were paying $40, and I really needed the money."
In the commercial, Fogel is shown saying that Initiative 28 is "the right problem but the wrong solution." In fact, she said, "I really don't agree with that position. I really want the bottle bill to pass . . . . I'm just embarrassed about it. I feel like I sold out."
Another ad features the comments of Howard University economics professor Lenneal J. Henderson, who warns viewers that Initiative 28 will raise beverage prices for consumers and have little impact on litter. The commercial does not mention that Henderson has been on the industry group's payroll as a consultant since March.
Puth of the prodeposit group, the Bottle Initiative Committee, says industry claims made in the ads echo those from campaigns in other states.
Nine states -- Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont -- have approved bottle laws. But voters in seven states have rejected deposit proposals, and legislation requiring deposits has been voted down in 41 state legislatures after intense industry lobbying.
With New York the last state to approve a deposit measure, in 1982, and with at least a dozen other state legislatures now considering bottle bills, many people view the outcome of the D.C. vote Nov. 3 as a key test of whether industry will be able to continue holding the line.
In newspaper advertisements since April, the industry coalition has focused on what it contends are inconveniences certain to follow approval of Initiative 28. One shows a giant roach and claims D.C. homes will turn into a "roach motel" if consumers save their empty cans and bottles.
An upcoming ad depicts a long line of dispirited shoppers waiting to redeem their empties and sagging under the weight of bags filled with containers.
Radio ads with a similar message have been airing for months. For instance, at one popular station, WHUR, the industry coalition since April has spent more than $120,000 to air its commercials continually.
Clean Capital City has paid more than $200,000 to the firm of veteran Democratic pollster and political consultant Matthew A. Reese to produce radio and television ads.
"I think it's clear that the amount of advertising bought in the market for this is higher than most issues," said Zemira Jones, general sales manager for radio station WDJY.
Jones said WDJY has gone out of its way to give time to deposit advocates, who say they cannot afford to buy commercials. Puth said the group pushing the bottle bill has had to rely mainly on volunteers to make commercials and depends almost entirely on broadcasters' sense of fair play to get them on the air.
Most stations, he said, have adhered to a policy of granting the pro-bottle-bill group one free advertisement for every three paid for by the industry coalition. Officials at several stations said that the Coke-backed group routinely has sought corporate discount rates for the antideposit ads and usually has been refused. The officials said the group frequently has complained about free ads given to the deposit advocates.
"The impression should not be that we're getting a free ride here," Puth said. "We're not getting a free ride. We're getting clobbered on the airwaves."