By Talia Mindich - 07/17/13 10:40 PM EDT
Several members of Congress have participated in a series of public service announcements that have the double benefit of both publicizing social and health issues while giving each lawmaker free airtime in their district.
A record-breaking 244 members of Congress or their family members were featured in more than 800 PSAs, which have been distributed to television and radio stations in each lawmaker’s district or state for the National Association of Broadcasters’ (NAB) 2013 Congressional PSA Campaign, according to the group.
Members chose from eight messages, which included breast cancer awareness, fire prevention and support for returning veterans.
The opportunity to send positive messages back to a lawmaker’s constituency at no cost to the member has raised some concerns.
The campaign provides an unfair political advantage to the incumbent over their competitors, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
“When free time is given to a person who is subject to reelection every other year, and the message is uncontroversial, the audience is increasingly likely to remember the person’s name and identify the person positively with the message of the PSA announcement,” Jamieson said.
To ensure that the campaign complies with federal election laws, the PSAs will lose airtime on Dec. 15, 2013, before the 2014 election year begins.
However, Jamieson argued that lawmakers from the House are in a “constant state of campaigning” because they are up for reelection every two years.
Jamieson also called the campaign a “subtle form of lobbying,” arguing, in other words, that participating members are accepting free airtime in exchange for loyalty to the NAB.
“NAB is doing exactly what it wants to do and needs to do. It’s trying to burnish its image with members of Congress. I would suggest that members of Congress just say no.”
Wharton rejected Jamieson’s accusation.
“Our goal is to get positive messages back to local communities, nothing more and nothing less,” he said. “It’s terribly cynical to ascribe a sinister motive to PSAs that encourage people to get treatment for depression, or to help returning war veterans get jobs and better acclimated into society.”
The NAB worked with iKeepSafe, the National Safety Council, Prevent Cancer Foundation, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the U.S. Fire Administration and The Mission Continues to develop the messaging. Cyber bullying, distracted driving, cancer prevention, fire prevention and veteran support are new since the last campaign.
Some lawmakers had personal connections to their topics, such as Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), who chose breast cancer awareness because of his experiences as a medical doctor.
“I’ve seen a lot of young patients who have come into my emergency department for a symptom of a breast mass, and a lot of that could have been prevented if it was detected earlier — if they had education for it,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz, as did a few other lawmakers, chose to tape his PSAs in both Spanish and English.
For some participants, such as Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.), the opportunity was shared among family members.
“It was a unique opportunity to make a difference on some important public service issues but also kind of a neat opportunity for my daughters to get some practice on TV,” said Rep. Messer, whose daughters Eva, 9, and Emma, 10, each taped their own PSAs. “They see their dad doing interviews, and so they were interested in doing it too.”
Eva did hers on volunteerism while Emma chose to talk about distracted-driving prevention.
“I think when I did the PSA, it took three or four takes, but for my daughters, I think they got it in one,” said Messer, who talked about supporting returning veterans and volunteerism in his spots. “So that shows you where the real talent in the family is.”
Several participants are featured in two or three, but Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) clocked in at the most with four. Connolly said he used the campaign to advocate for distracted-driving prevention because his district has lost a lot of teenagers to texting and driving.
“It’s an emotional issue for me,” Connolly said.
Connolly’s Virginia district contains the Springfield Interchange, also known as the Mixing Bowl, which is one of the busiest traffic spots in the nation.
There was no limit to the number of PSAs a participant could tape.
The PSA campaign began in 1985 and has continued every other year since then. It was a program exclusively for congressional spouses until 2007 when the association began inviting lawmakers to participate.
The previous record for number of lawmakers was in 2009, when 232 participants taped more than 790 PSAs.
For its next campaign, Wharton said the NAB is aiming for 300 lawmakers to participate.
This article was updated on July 19 at 10:23 a.m.