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Unspun 

Wednesday, Feb 26 1997
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Say Cheese
There's a "crisis" on campus, and it has nothing to do with politics. It's "the calcium crisis." Manufactured and being milked for all the publicity value it's worth by the Chicago-based PR firm Bozell Inc., for its client, the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board. Bozell also created the "Milk, Where's Your Mustache?" ad campaign for the milk-makers.

Bozell came to UC Berkeley with an elaborate package Feb. 19. We have to admit we missed the campus response to the rich opportunities: to be photographed with a milk mustache (for possible inclusion on Bozell's Website, whymilk.com), to participate in a "giant puzzle race to win cool prizes," and, of course, to have questions about milk answered by Rita Mitchell, a UC Berkeley dietitian.

"Education" is Bozell's averred goal, and therein lies the crux of its PR problem.

Milk is viewed by a significant minority of consumers in this, the land of organic latte, as a drug-laced, potentially disease-bearing, unnatural substance (as in the extremist "milk is for baby cows" line). Those who do think milk is good for them already know so, and the rest aren't going to be swayed by an ad campaign, and certainly not by the drummed-up pseudo-health crisis of calcium deficiency.

For a lesson in selling milk, there's the much-praised Got Milk? campaign, originated by the S.F. agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. Forget the dietitian, have some Hostess cupcakes, is their well-received message. "We tell people, 'Hey, eat more buns, cereal, chocolate' " and have some milk at the same time, says Goodby's J.P. Theberge. "It's more fun."

Bozell, however, is hewing to the calamity tack, no matter what. Dietitian Mitchell couldn't stifle a giggle at the mention of the word "crisis" during a brief phone interview last week. Why the alarm about calcium? That dread osteoporosis, is her ready answer. And it afflicts 25 million Americans.

"Your bones continue to increase in density until you're 30," she says. Too many college-age Americans don't know that, and, she says, thus aren't as conscious of their calcium needs as they should be.

This is hardly a crisis, though, and all of Bozell's statistical web-spinning ignores a genuinely alarming figure -- the number of people for whom milk is harmful. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), between 35 million and 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant. For them, ingesting dairy products can trigger symptoms ranging from minor gastric upset to devastating vomiting and diarrhea.

And, with little or no milk, those people can still manage to consume enough calcium to keep their bones from breaking. The NIH notes: "Even older women ... and growing children can meet most of their special dietary needs by eating greens, fish, and other calcium-rich foods that are free of lactose."

Particularly susceptible to lactose intolerance are Native Americans, African-Americans, and Asian-Americans. The NIH estimates those groups have intolerance rates running from 75 to 90 percent.

Maybe Bozell should retire those Spike Lee "milk mustache" ads. Or perhaps he just didn't swallow.

The Scarlet Web
If you had any doubt that the country is suffering one of those fits of Puritanism that periodically turn otherwise normal people into blue-nosed busybodies obsessed with decency and clean living, consider this cyberspace invention: software that allows Website designers to rate the cultural sinfulness of their own creations.

It's a scary step toward the kind of self-imposed moral cleansing that took place during the McCarthy era of the '50s or, to go back even further, the Salem witch trials.

This innovation in self-monitoring and confession comes from SafeSurf, a Van Nuys-based company trying to market products that enable parents and schools to equip computers with filters to screen unwanted material from the Internet. Filtering, of course, can be a tricky business; "content," like beauty, is pretty much in the eye of the beholder. (Forget the Mapplethorpe photos. What do you do about National Geographic and the Venus de Milo?)

And there are more practical problems. SafeSurf promises its users monthly updates of filtered sites, which requires an ongoing evaluation of every bit of cybercrud that makes its way onto the Internet. This massive mission is most easily accomplished with a self-rating process, and the contortions of self-censorship.

SafeSurf has devised 10 categories of sin (the biblical seven apparently being insufficient) by which the sites are to be judged. Numbers 1 through 6 are fairly standard: Profanity; Heterosexual and Homosexual Themes; Nudity; Violence and Sex; and, in case something unseemly slipped through the first four, Violence (repeated for good measure) and Profanity.

Categories 7 through 10, however, approach that disturbing point on the American political compass where the loony right and the loony left converge: Intolerance, Glorifying Drug Use, Other Adult Themes, and Gambling. (The last is especially curious, given the large number of states that currently operate lotteries and other forms of legal betting in which a portion of the profits are earmarked for education or other socially acceptable programs.)

Website self-assessors are invited to enter their sites' ratings in each of these 10 areas, using pull-down menus reflecting the "seriousness" of transgression, from 1 to 9. Under Heterosexual Themes, for example, a rating of 1 means "subtle innuendo, subtly implied through the use of metaphor," and 9 denotes "explicit and crude or explicitly inviting participation." A helpful example suggests that a Category 9 transgression would include "profane graphic descriptions of intimate details of sexual acts designed to arouse. Inviting interactive sexual participation. Unsupervised Sexual Chat Rooms or Newsgroups." Similarly, the range for Intolerance runs from "subtle innuendo" to "advocating violent or hateful action."

Because 13 strikes us as a more appropriate number than 10 for expunging sin, we suggest the addition of three more self-rating Website categories, each of which has now been elevated to the level of public moral scrutiny: Placing Your Child in an Ill-Fitting Car Seat, Tolerating the Use of Tobacco Products, and Explicitly or Implicitly Advocating an Unbalanced Federal Budget.

The Message Is the Message
Nothing in politics is quite as edifying (or entertaining) as watching the losers of the last election try to figure out where they went wrong and how they are going to regroup for the next battle. The viewing was particularly choice last weekend as 1,500 of California's Republican faithful gathered in Sacramento for the state party's semiannual convention and factional bloodletting. While the GOP instinct for fratricide is always problematic (two breakaway groups -- one to the right of the ultra-conservative party leadership, and one to the left -- are planning separate conventions later this spring), the proceedings were marked by a certain realpolitik, a sense that electoral recovery in 1998 and 2000 will require burying the hatchet someplace other than in each other's heads.

Three days of soul-searching produced the following diagnoses for the 1996 debacle: lack of GOP heroes, lack of GOP guts, lack of Ronald Reagan, lack of "rapid message response team" to counteract "Clinton lies," and "media bias." Translation? The GOP message was fine, but the delivery needs reworking to make it more attractive to women and minority voters.

Attorney General Dan Lungren, thus far the party's only declared gubernatorial candidate for 1998, summed up the proposed new direction with a call for a massive "descarification effort." As he exhorted California Republicans to walk largely minority precincts in South Central and East Los Angeles, Lungren also suggested that success would come "not by changing our principles, but by articulating our principles."

But oh, that articulation can get dicey, as a panel of national GOP political consultants demonstrated during a lengthy dissection of how the party's stands on affirmative action and immigration affected California voters in '96. Santa Barbara Assemblyman Brooks Firestone scolded the panel for its references to "illegal immigration" instead of illegal entry, and "affirmative action" rather than quotas and preferences. "Sloppy terminology," he said.

And sloppy thinking, we might add. In the short term, cleaning up its rhetorical act makes sense for the party. Over the long haul, however, California's demographics will force Republicans to deal with policies as well. The ones they're wedded to at the moment alienate the very people they need to attract.

Phyllis Orrick and Susan Rasky can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8139; e-mail: porrick@sfweekly.com.

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Phyllis Orrick

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