Officials at a Washington-area medical clinic say Metro officials have blocked them from running ads in Metrorail stations because they run afoul of the transit agency’s ban on political advocacy.
Melissa Grant, vice president of health-care services for Carafem Health Center, said the banners, which advertise the availability of prescription abortion, are not political.
“All we are doing is trying to get the word out to potential clients,” Grant said. She said Metro stations are an attractive setting because they offer an excellent way to reach a large number of people in one place — particularly young, working women who might use the center’s services.
The bright pink ads feature a picture of a white pill with text below that reads, “FOR ABORTION UP TO 10 WEEKS.”
But Metro officials disagree with Grant. In an email response last month to Carafem officials, Donna M. Murray, manager of advertising and market development for Metro, wrote that “because your ad addresses the controversial topic of abortion and promotes a particular abortion product, it is issue-oriented.”
Murray also said that Metro’s advertising guidelines, which were updated in 2015, also state, “Medical and health-related messages will be accepted only from government health organizations, or if the substance of the message is currently accepted by the American Medical Association and/or the Food and Drug Administration.”
This is not the first time that Carafem, a Chevy Chase-based medical clinic, has run into a problem with Metro. In 2015, the health center sought to run a series of ads about abortion and birth-control services it offered. Metro officials initially turned down the ads, citing a policy that bans “issue-oriented” advertising in the system. But after inquiries by The Washington Post, Metro officials reversed the decision, saying the rejection was a misunderstanding.
In the most recent exchange, however, Murray wrote that the 2015 reversal was in error.
Grant said that last month when the health center reached out to Metro about putting up a series of banner ads in select Metro stations, the request was denied. She said Metro officials cited restrictions on health-related and political messages in rejecting the ads. Clinic officials appealed the decision, noting that Carafem is not a political advocacy group but a health-care provider. The appeal was denied Dec. 20.
Carafem had planned to spend $23,520 on the subway ads.
Grant said the company will find other ways to advertise its services. The ads will appear starting sometime next week on D.C. bus shelters, which are not owned by Metro but rather are owned and maintained by the D.C. Department of Transportation, which has different advertising guidelines.
Grant, however, said other venues cannot match the volume of people moving through the region’s Metro stations. She said her company has not ruled out legal action against the agency.
Advertising, while lucrative, has been a tricky proposition for Metro and other transit agencies across the country. Metro has been sued at least twice by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), a group known for its provocative anti-Muslim ads.
Transit systems in New York and Philadelphia also have moved to ban advocacy ads.
In May 2015, Metro received a request from AFDI to run the winning entry from a “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest” in five subway stations and on 20 Metrobuses. Rather than prohibit those ads specifically — a move that federal courts have forbidden — Metro’s board of directors opted to ban all new advocacy ads for the remainder of that year.
At that meeting, Lynn Bowersox, Metro’s marketing manager, said the revenue from issueoriented ads accounted for about 20 percent, or roughly $2.5 million, of the agency’s overall annual income from advertising.
Later that year in a surprise move, the board voted to make the ban permanent.
But at the same meeting, the cash-strapped transit agency also voted to reverse a 20-year ban on alcohol advertising at the end of 2015, saying that lifting the ban could potentially generate $5 million over several years.