Big Bird joins list of unwitting – and unwilling – campaign props

"Sesame Street's" objection to the use of Big Bird as a political prop has churned plenty of headlines over the last week, but it's hardly the first time this year a prominent name has protested an unwitting campaign appearance.

From Exxon to AARP to several national journalists, a growing number of well-known groups and individuals have taken exception when either President Obama or GOP nominee Mitt Romney invoked them – without notice or approval – to hammer home a political message.

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While those organizations have plenty to gain from the national attention a campaign-trail shout-out can generate, they seem more wary that appearances of supporting one side or the other could alienate a huge segment of the country, potentially costing them customers, members or even influence on Capitol Hill.

Such pushback has long been a trend in the music industry, with numerous cases of candidates picking campaign rally music – from Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" to Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry Be Happy" – only to have the artists protest, usually over politics. But this year's public challenges from companies and individuals thrust involuntarily into the campaign spotlight have been unusual, and perhaps suggests a new normal in an age of free Web ads and media overload, when anything can be used as fodder by candidates scrambling to get an edge on their opponents. 

The latest episode, featuring Big Bird, has triggered the most buzz. During last Wednesday's debate in Denver, Romney threatened to end funding for PBS, the federally subsidized broadcast network that airs "Sesame Street," arguing that the country simply can't afford to keep it running.

"I like PBS. I love Big Bird. Actually, I like you, too,” Romney said to debate moderator Jim Lehrer, the host of PBS's "NewsHour." “But I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for."

Obama pounced, referencing the threat to Big Bird in a series of stump speeches in the days that followed. On Tuesday, his campaign doubled down on that message, releasing an ad suggesting that Big Bird, in Romney's eyes, is as menacing as Bernie Madoff, Ken Lay and other corporate titans convicted of financial crimes.

But the attention didn't sit well with Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that produces "Sesame Street." While the organization initially seemed to enjoy the attention – a tweet from the group the morning after the debate had Big Bird asking, "Did I miss anything last night?" – the continued use of the iconic character to promote a political campaign occasioned a change of heart.

"Sesame Workshop is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization and we do not endorse candidates or participate in political campaigns," the group said in a statement issued Tuesday. "We have approved no campaign ads, and, as is our general practice, have requested that both campaigns remove Sesame Street characters and trademarks from their campaign materials."

They weren't alone. AARP, the advocacy group for folks older than 49, issued a similar statement after Obama attacked Romney's plan for Medicare with a reference to AARP's opposition to the GOP strategy.

AARP is no stranger to partisan squabbles. The group was attacked from the left a decade ago when it endorsed the GOP's proposal to create private insurance plans under Medicare. And it's been hammered from the right in recent years for supporting Obama's healthcare reform law.

Perhaps with those entanglements in mind, the group was quick to distance itself from Obama's debate comments.

"While we respect the rights of each campaign to make its case to voters," John Hishta, the group's senior vice president, said, "AARP has never consented to the use of its name by any candidate or political campaign."

ExxonMobil also quarreled with Obama surrounding the debate, attacking the president for singling out the oil giant in his push to end to billions of dollars in industry tax breaks.

“To hear President Barack Obama in last night’s first presidential debate, you would think he was running against ExxonMobil this November, given his tendency to single us out for criticism,” Ken Cohen, an Exxon executive, wrote Thursday on the company’s website.

The Republicans, too, have had their share of accidental spokesmen who protested against being dragged into the fight.

In March, CNN newscaster Erin Burnett said she "was annoyed" after the Republican National Committee used her image in a Web ad accusing Obama of waging a "war on women" by accepting a donation from comedian Bill Maher.

"Now to say an entire party is at war with women?" she said. "This is all politics!”

In a similar vein, CBS anchor Bob Schieffer was quick to push back after the Romney campaign used him in a July campaign ad that ran on Schieffer's own “Face the Nation” program.

“It is my understanding that just a few minutes ago, the Romney campaign bought time on ‘Face the Nation’ during one of our commercial blocks,” Schieffer said after the commercial break.

"Obviously, I have no connection with the Romney campaign. This was done without our permission," he added. "It comes as a total surprise to me, and that is that. But that is – that’s where we are in politics.”

If organizations like Sesame Workshop and AARP see these ads as bad for business, newscasters have a slightly different motivation for pushing back.

"Newspeople … are supposed to be nonpartisan," Michael Mezey, a political scientist at DePaul University, said Wednesday, "and to the extent that an ad gives the impression that they are supporting a candidate, they may well feel that their professionalism is being compromised."