First 5 Ads Draw Fire

LOS ANGELES Embroiled in charges that it created an illegally funded ad campaign for the First 5 California Children and Families Commission, Omnicom Group’s GMMB today referred queries to the client—a goverment body in Sacramento—which declined comment pending a state-run investigation.

Earlier this month, the child-development commission was accused by state legislators on both sides of aisle running an ad campaign for First 5 touting the lifelong advantages of preschool at the same time that First 5’s chairman—actor, director and political activist Rob Reiner—was trying to qualify a new ballot initiative, Proposition 82, for government-funded Universal Preschool for All in California. The initiative summoned the support necessary to qualify for the June ballot.

State regulations make clear that government funds may not be used to endorse political candidates or issues, and opponents of Reiner claim that he directed the agency to coincidentally campaign for his latest cause.

Sen. Dave Cox is among the state legislators citing a Los Angeles Timesreport that First 5 spent $27 million in a November-January ad blitz, timed to coincide with Prop 82’s qualifying period. The report also states advertising and public relations contracts totaling $230 million were assigned to Reiner’s First 5 associates. Sen. Cox said these contracts demonstrate “a lack of competitive bids.”

First 5 is Reiner’s brainchild. He was the author and later the spokesman and celebrity endorser of a 50-cents-per-pack tobacco tax, Proposition 10, used to fund the commission, which supports programs such as child health insurance, training educators and early-care workers, school readiness programs; parenting and childhood educational material, and child immunization.

Last week, Reiner proclaimed his innocence at a press conference. Members of the commission argue that the disputed GMMB ads do not directly ask voters to support the new initiative. Nonetheless, Reiner agreed to step down from his role as commissioner until after the investigation.

GMMB has its main office in Washington, D.C., and a satellite in Santa Monica, Calif. It won the $67 million, three-year contract from the state [Adweek Online, May 10, 2004] in a final pitch against The Phelps Group. It partners with independents IW Group for Asian outreach and with Durazo Communications for Hispanic advertising.

At a Joint Legislative Audit Committee hearing March 8, First 5 executive director Kris Perry said that First 5 “welcomes an audit.” California Attorney General Bill Lockyer bowed out, citing attorney-client conflict of interest. The request for investigation from the California Senate was referred to another attorney general.