In a rarity, a Boston television station added a disclaimer to a political ad from a Republican candidate for secretary of state distancing itself from the spot, which includes images from an oft-targeted graphic novel and warns of children accessing “books with sex acts.”
The decision by WCVB to issue a warning about potentially “offensive” content ahead of the 30-second spot from Rayla Campbell is unusual, according to advertising and media analysts, who said they have never heard of a station taking such a step.
The ad includes images from the graphic novel “Gender Queer: a Memoir” and a voiceover from Campbell, who is challenging Democratic incumbent William F. Galvin. In the ad, Campbell asks viewers if they want their children “reading child pornography.”
“Books with sex acts and foul language have become available at our children’s fingertips,” the Whitman Republican says in the spot. “Vote on Nov. 8 and let’s fight this fight together to save our children.”
Campbell’s ad leans into a push, including from other Republican candidates, to “play upon the anxieties around gender and sexual identity in a changing American culture,” said Michael Serazio, an associate professor of communication at Boston College.
“It’s a very provocative ad,” Serazio said.
Also notable, he said, is the disclaimer that precedes it. WCVB warns viewers that the ad is “not endorsed” by the station, and that “under federal law, WCVB is obligated to air the following ad without censorship.”
“Please be advised the ad contains language and/or images that viewers may find offensive,” it reads.
A WCVB spokeswoman did not address questions about why it chose to include the disclaimer, or whether the station had ever done so before for a political ad.
“I cannot recall an instance of the host network airing a trigger warning in advance of a political ad being run,” said Serazio, who’s written extensively on media and advertising.
With $14,000 behind it, the ad has a relatively limited reach. It first aired Tuesday, and is scheduled to air each weekday morning in the 6 o’clock hour until Halloween. Campbell said Wednesday that the spot, her first on television, was not slated to run on other TV stations. She said officials from other stations either did not respond to her or told her they planned to only run ads from federal or gubernatorial candidates.
John Carroll, a veteran media analyst, said he, too, has never seen such a disclaimer on a political ad. Carroll, a former mass communications professor at Boston University, also questioned whether WCVB was obligated to run the ad, though he acknowledged Federal Communications Commission regulations — including those requiring equal air time for competing political candidates — presents a “complicated issue” for broadcast stations.
“You can see why WCVB is concerned that they wind up in the middle of this from a PR standpoint,” Carroll said. “If they refuse to run an ad, all of a sudden they’re in the middle of a hot-button cultural and political issue. It’s a real high-wire act for WCVB or any broadcaster.”
Campbell last week posted a longer, 48-second version of the ad on Facebook that includes its own warning of “Graphic Depictions & Language.” Her move to television came shortly after she received a boost in fund-raising, largely from out-of-state donors, following an Oct. 15 appearance on the podcast of Steve Bannon, the longtime adviser to former president Donald Trump.
She said she disagrees with WCVB’s decision to include its disclaimer. “Why are you wanting to put a disclaimer out here for adults to see but not children?” she said.
Substantively, it’s not clear how the book’s place at local libraries directly relates to the duties of secretary of state. The office has a wide portfolio that includes overseeing elections, policing the financial industry, and enforcing the state’s public records law, but it has no authority over school or municipal libraries.
In an interview, Campbell argued that if a person is denied documents under a public records request to a library or school seeking to learn “who approved [certain books] and who allowed them to be put into our libraries,” they could ultimately appeal to the secretary of state’s office. She also said the secretary of state sits on the Board of State Library Trustees, giving the secretary “influence.”
But that board only relates to the State Library, which sits on the third-floor of the State House and is largely a repository for legislative and historical documents. It also has no direct oversight over local libraries or what books they include.
“She has every right to spend her campaign money on this issue. But it has nothing to do with this office,” Galvin said.
“Gender Queer,” a 2019 memoir from Maia Kobabe about identifying as nonbinary, was the country’s most challenged book — or subject to the most attempts to remove or restrict it — in 2021, according to the American Library Association, which said it was “restricted for LGBTQIA+ content and because it was considered to have sexually explicit images.”
The novel includes illustrations depicting sex and masturbation, and has been a frequent target of Campbell, who at the state GOP’s spring convention baselessly claimed that public schools are instructing 5-year-olds to perform sex acts.