A hard cell on TV

Everyone expects political commercials to oversimplify things, but American commercials dealing with stem cell research make mere oversimplification look like a PhD dissertation. Scepticism that therapeutic cloning might not deliver the goods is interpreted as despicable Pharisaism.

In the weeks before the November 7 elections, the worst example of dumbed-down argument uses three actors. There's a teenaged boy who says he might get paralysed in a car accident, a young woman who worries about getting Alzheimer's, and a little girl who pouts that she might get diabetes. "Maybe I'm your mother. Maybe I'm your grandson. Maybe I'm your little girl... How come he think he gets to decide who lives and who dies? Who is he?" It's cloyingly, shamefully, deceitfully emotional, uncontaminated by a smidgen of fact, the medical counterpart of the notorious Willie Horton commercials which sank Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election. But it works.

It works so well, in fact, that it is being used in not one, but four states. A Democratic lobby group, Majority Action, is using it to "turn a powerful spotlight" on four members of the House of Representatives: Jim Walsh, of New York; Chris Chocola, of Indiana; Doug Sherwood, of Pennsylvania; and Thelma Drake, of Virginia. Majority Action spokesman Mark Longabaugh, says that "stem cell research offers great medical hope for patients and families suffering from devastating illness or injuries. This ad, in very powerful terms, lays out what is at stake in the stem cell debate... Republicans have made choices that pick ideology over life-saving medical research."

The only problem is that this medical research hasn't actually saved any lives and may never save any. In fact, the smart money is on adult stem cells. As Associate Professor James Sherley, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote last week: "Despite similar misinformation to the contrary, adult stem cell research is a viable and vibrant path to new medical therapies. Even calling them an alternative to embryonic stem cells misinforms the public. Why? Because embryonic stem cells provide no path at all. " Even scientists who are ardent supporters of the research have acknowledged that useful products from embryonic stem cells are at least 15 years away. And no one has ventured to guess how much these cures might cost.

Distorted as they may be, something can be learned from ads like these. Take this one from a Congressional race in Wisconsin designed to kneecap Republican John Gard. The music is a bit odd -- what does Enya have to do with stem cells? -- but the ad is quite effective. It cites Republican favourites like Orrin Hatch and Nancy Reagan who back the research, juxtaposing them with Darth Vaders from "the extreme right" like disgraced Congressman Tom Delay, TV evangelist Pat Robertson and Focus on the Family president James Dobson. Gard's ethical reservations would stifle hope for a range of diseases, the ad suggests. These include Alzheimer's, which most scientists acknowledge is probably beyond stem cell cures.

This ad employs clever rhetorical jiujutsu to trip up opponents with the force of their own arguments. Dobson, for instance, is quoted as saying, "Lowering that standard is also likely to lead to human cloning and harvesting of body parts conceived for this purpose." But thumping the drum of doom doesn't work; it only makes him look ridiculous, at least to viewers in the Badger State.

Similarly, the Wisconsin race for governor pits incumbent Jim Doyle against Mark Green, who this woman says is "too extreme" for the job because he opposes stem cell research. (Governor Doyle, on the other hand, is extremely generous. He recently handed over US$1 million to a private company started by the scientist who first isolated human embryonic stem cells, James Thompson.)

Extremism in defence of embryos may be no vice, but it is not necessarily effective. What Dobson says could come to pass, but what he foresees is only on the radar of the best-informed participants in the debate. Meanwhile, his opponents simply ridicule him as Chicken Little.
Strategically, this puts opponents of therapeutic cloning and embryonic stem cell research in a tight corner. Their sermons about the rights of embryos may strengthen the resolve of the faithful, but they won't touch sceptics, as this clip with comedian Jon Stewart shows. He has a field day with Senator Sam Brownback's defence of embryo rights. Even though Brownback's supporters would no doubt cheer his folksy explanations, Stewart's rubber-faced ridicule suggest that vast swathes of American voters simply cannot comprehend what the fuss is all about.

So how can those who believe that destroying embryos for medical research frame their argument when they have only seconds to present it in an advertisement? The safest avenue seems to be the one taken by the lobby group Missourians Against Human Cloning: pinch the hip-pocket nerve and repeat the word "cloning" as many times as possible. It wants to sink an amendment to the state constitution which would bulletproof therapeutic cloning from legislative interference. Instead of defending embryo rights, its ad focuses on "biotech special interests who stand to gain millions of dollars". The talking head approach has little of the emotional punch of the pro-research ads, but it does appeal to taxpayers' horror of pouring their hard-earned money down the gullet of fatcat business interests.

But, ultimately, to persuade a public which has been told for decades that contraception and abortion are fundamental human rights, more creativity, more thinking outside the square, is needed. People simply are not used to thinking deeply about life. There's little point in moaning about hitting below the belt. If television appeals to the emotions, be emotional. But don't try to write a Stephen King novel about embryo research -- it won't work.

Michael Cook is Editor of MercatorNet.


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