Ad firm removes gun violence signs amid protest
Clear Channel, in donating space, says it didn’t intend to take sides
The advertising giant Clear Channel Outdoor on Thursday took down the billboards it donated to a campaign against gun violence, arguing that its support had been “misconstrued as a political position” by gun-rights advocates who mounted an online protest against the advertisements.
The billboards, which went up across the state this week, said, “We’re not anti-gun. We’re pro-life. Massachusetts Gun Laws Save Lives,” and featured a Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle with a white surrender flag in the barrel.
Initially a full-throated supporter, Clear Channel said that it did not intend to take sides on gun control. It owns 25 of the 36 billboards planned for the campaign, which was organized by the group Stop Handgun Violence. It was unclear whether the three other companies that offered to donate space would also pull the ads.
“This campaign has become politicized and misconstrued as a political position by our company, so we have taken it down,” Clear Channel spokesman David Grabert said in a statement.
Grabert said the company had received “a number of messages expressing concern” about the signs.
Many of the messages came as part of an effort by the Gun Owners’ Action League, the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association, which demanded that the billboards come down — or that the companies displaying them give equal time to gun-rights advocates.
“I’m certainly glad they have decided to pull the ads. I hope they’re doing it for the right reasons,” said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League. He called the ads “inaccurate and misleading.”
John Rosenthal, cofounder of Stop Handgun Violence, said he felt that his message in opposition to violence was one that everybody could agree on. He described the gun group’s tactics as “bullying.”
“It’s the same intimidation tactics that have worked for GOAL so effectively before,” he said.
Stop Handgun Violence organized the statewide billboard campaign as it prepared to remove its iconic, 252-foot billboard from the side of the Massachusetts Turnpike near Fenway Park, where it had been for 20 years.
The other companies that donated space for the billboards were Logan Communications, Total Outdoor, and Outfront Media, according to Stop Handgun Violence.
Carly Zipp, a spokeswoman for Outfront Media, said the company offered to sell the group space it had initially donated in Peabody. Stop Handgun Violence said it would not pay.
“As a general rule, Outfront Media allows issue-oriented messaging to be displayed on its advertising platforms on a space-available basis,” Zipp said.
Multiple requests seeking comment from the other companies were not immediately returned.
Rosenthal said he reached out to Clear Channel Outdoor about purchasing the ad space to keep the messages up, but did not have a deal Thursday afternoon.
Rosenthal had sought out the new space as he faced a deadline to remove the massive billboard from the side of the turnpike.
He once owned the garage that supports the sign, but he has since sold it to Fenway Sports Group, the parent company of the Red Sox.
John Henry, principal owner of Fenway Sports Group, also owns The Boston Globe.
In a Globe interview this week, a Clear Channel official cited the removal of the longstanding advertisement on the Mass Pike as the impetus for the donation.
“When we realized he would no longer have his . . . billboard to get out the message about gun control, we offered to utilize some of our space,” Stephen Ross, president of the company’s Boston division, said Monday.
On Thursday, Ross referred a request for comment to Grabert, who said the company initially considered the billboards within the scope of its “social responsibility” program.
That campaign typically offers billboard space to nonprofit and governmental organizations for public service announcements focusing on environment, arts and education, and health and safety, according to details about the program on the company’s website.
“We also respond swiftly to crises with weather notifications, AMBER alerts, and support for law enforcement in cases like the Boston Marathon bombing,” Grabert said.
Clear Channel, based in San Antonio, is majority owned by two large Boston private equity firms — Bain Capital and Thomas H. Lee Partners.
Peter Ubertaccio, director of The Joseph Martin Institute for Law and Society at Stonehill College, said it’s “hard to imagine” that Clear Channel didn’t see this controversy on the horizon when it agreed to run the ads.
“I don’t know how you could arrive at any other conclusion, or fail to see that it’s fairly controversial,” he said.
Ubertaccio said gun rights are such a contested issue that even trying to get into the conversation from a public health perspective invites a lot of political sentiments.
“There is a way to thread that needle to talk about firearm safety,” he said. “But very few conversations about guns don’t have political overtones, and they become heightened because of the Second Amendment and public policy making.”
Wallace, of the Gun Owners’ Action League, said there are other ways to advocate for gun safety.
“In the future, if they want to put ads out about firearm safety — how to properly store a gun or get the right training — we would work with them on that.”