October 24, 2006

Wounded Cats

Michael J. Fox and his pro-embryonic stem cell message are apparently turning into a factor in several elections. In addition to the spot supporting Democrat Claire McCaskill in the Missouri Senate race that Glenn [McGee] describes below, Fox has also made similar spots supporting Ben Cardin in the Maryland Senate race and incumbent Jim Doyle in the Wisconsin gubernatorial contest and is making appearances in support of Robert Menendez in the New Jersey Senate race and Tammy Duckworth in the Illinois 6th Congressional District, a race we’ve written about before. Matthew Mosk of the Washington Post describes the Maryland spot and local reaction to it is here.

The wounded cat screeching from stem cell opponents attest to the ad campaign’s effectiveness, the more so because the countercharges being lodged have so little substance. Rather than being “exploited”, Fox appears to be reaching out to campaigns where he thinks his message may have an impact and appears to be doing a good job of identifying the right ones. Apparently, he volunteered. Second, the claims he actually makes for embryonic stem cell research are not overstated. Both the spots themselves and the Website of Fox’s foundation, available here avoid the claims of eminent cures made by some advocates. The word “cure” doesn’t appear in the spots at all. Rather, embryonic stem cell research is described as a promising line of research that gives hope to disease sufferers, which seems about right for this stage of things. The sneering cracks by Rush Limbaugh and fellow bottom dwellers that Fox is “off his meds” or is “acting” appear to be exactly backwards. I’m no neurologist and don’t even play one on TV, but at least one neurologist, as reported here , notes that people with untreated Parkinson’s disease actually frequently appear stiff and frozen and have trouble walking or performing simple motor tasks. The jerky, involuntary movements that make the spots so painful to watch are a commonly reported side effect of levodopa, which is a primary treatment for Parkinson’s, as reported here on the website of the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Fox doesn’t look the way he does because he’s off his meds, but because he’s on them.

Complaints that the ads are self-pitying or in bad taste also miss the mark. To the contrary, the spots owe much of their effectiveness to their understatement. Fox is an effective presenter and the implicit contrast between a straightforward request for support and the obvious effort it’s taking him to make it don’t need embellishment. Claims about the potential benefits of stem cell research may be difficult for most to evaluate, but a personalization of one of the problems that researchers are trying to fix sends a strong message that real people have things at stake in this debate. As advertising, this stuff is hard to beat.
Jim Fossett
AMBI Federalism and Bioethics Initiative

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