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An unprejudiced truth about CBS' discrimination and lies

This dispatch was added by one of our Nonprofit Neighbors. It does not represent the editorial voice of The Rapidian or Community Media Center.

What happened behind the scenes with billboard company CBS Outdoor: the y refused to work with our West Michigan LGBT organization for fear of losing other clients, refused to run our artwork, then lied to the media about it (twice).
It's not that CBS refuses to run advertisements referencing LGBT Americans: they recently ran this billboard in North Carolina.

It's not that CBS refuses to run advertisements referencing LGBT Americans: they recently ran this billboard in North Carolina.

Underwriting support from:

CBS: Billboards can't have URLs?

From September to November, CBS Outdoor refused to run artwork we submitted for an ever-changing sequence of different reasons:

  • The group's message was negative.
  • The group represented something negative.
  • Other clients would quit CBS if the company worked with Until Love Is Equal, an LGBT movement .
  • The group's artwork violated policy prohibiting website addresses.
  • The website address was too large.
  • The artwork would not be approved no matter what.
  • CBS would design an alternative message, and that would be the LGBT movement's only option.

Below are some examples of the images emailed to ULIE after word got out that CBS had changed its position stated in the Grand Rapids Press (that CBS would allow ULIE to run the artwork). Please click thumbnail images for larger image.

Media coverage of billboard issue:

Grand Rapids Press 10/25/11.

Grand Rapids Press 11/17/11.

Rapid Growth Media 11/17/11.

Since June 2011, we have attempted to present helpful and hopefully useful information for five Holland City Council members to reconsider their vote against anti-discrimination protections for LGBT residents and workers.

In Fall 2011, we were attempting to pay for placement of a simple billboard message, even as Holland City Council was suggesting we try "other tactics" (in other words, tactics other than continuing to attend and present at City Council meetings).

This was our artwork, created pro-bono by Plenty Creative:

The message was intended to serve as a distinctly American reminder of a challenging but sacred truth: we uphold freedoms because we consider them innately given, even though they may not be convenient, easy or popular.

Unexpected refusal to work with us

Surprisingly, after weeks of successful preliminary interactions, we got a most unexpected phone call from CBS. They refused to work with us because of who/what we represent, and because of our message (above) which they said "represented something negative."

Later in October, Grand Rapids Press would ask CBS why they refused to work with us. CBS would lie by saying "we had misunderstood," and "of course they'd run our billboard." The story went to print with that perspective from CBS - and that's all the public really knows. But what CBS told the media bore no resemblance to what they told us in the background.

Then again in November, as CBS still refused to run our artwork, Grand Rapids Press again asked them why. CBS again played the media for a fool, saying we had "unilateral permission to run our artwork" (absolute lie) and "why wouldn't we just sign the contract?" (because they refused to run our artwork). The story went to print with that perspective from CBS, and the print version had a headline that basically accused us of orchestrating the entire thing for publicity. Brilliant.

Grand Rapids Press simply printed what a New York executive from CBS told them. Regrettably, these statements were untruths and they changed the way circumstances were portrayed, claiming we had initated the entire billboard issue for publicity. By lying, CBS distracted from the disappointing reality of their conduct. They confused public perception to a desired end: prompting the public to consider that we victimized them by orchestrating bad publicity.

So there was a lot more to this, than what went to print in the newspaper. We're providing a behind the scenes disclosure of what actually happened, closing the books on this horrible waste of time, energy and resources. The year 2012 will see Until Love Is Equal utilize revolutionary modes of expression that break new ground in public dialog. A number of outlets and institutions are dominated by old ways of thinking, and we're done with old ways of thinking.

Clarity and closure

One thing we know for sure: we have no idea why CBS objected to our message. They said we represented something negative - not the artwork, but us. The content of the artwork could not have been the real issue, unless CBS objected to the United States Pledge of Allegiance, which seems unlikely. Relative to the tone and content of other billboards CBS happily displays, ours seems rather inert. The Until Love Is Equal website is overwhelmingly positive, almost to a fault. The two months we spent trying to get a billboard were belittling and exhuasting, a massive distraction that resulted in nothing positive. If prejudice or politics had nothing to do with their refusal (to work with us), we don't know what it was. We only ever wanted a billboard along I-196 between Grand Rapids and Holland.

From the beginning

In mid-September 2011, we contacted CBS Outdoor to ask for prices for billboard leasing. Michael Tuffelmire, Until Love Is Equal member that had contracted with CBS multiple times on behalf of other entities, acted as our primary contact with CBS.

Inquiries and negotiations proceeded normally. Cost and location were the primary concerns for us. We had quite a decent budget to work with, thanks to the generosity of committed West Michigan business leaders. The main concern was placement.

Then came that early October phone call that changed everything: CBS contacted Tuffelmire to say they refused to work with our LGBT organization because "we had a negative message."

Short of the company offering us a billboard on Mars, this refusal (to work with us) was the last thing we expected.

"Honestly, we didn't even consider they'd ask us to change the artwork, much less refuse to work with us," founder Erin Wilson said.

Tuffelmire asked what they meant when they said we "represented something negative," explaining that our movement was founded on positivity and respect.

"[CBS Outdoor represenative Tracy Wink] said they 'feared CBS would lose clients if they worked with our group,'" Tuffelmire said.

Fast forward to late October

Later in October, the Grand Rapids Press started looking into it. Press reporter Shandra Martinez contacted CBS Outdoor's national office in New York City, and spoke with executive Vice President Jodi Senese.

For the Press article, Senese said the media conglomerate hadn't turned down our billboard. She said we had "misunderstood." 

"For CBS to say they didn't turn down the group's billboard is an outright lie," said Tuffelmire, a decorated combat veteran who served the nation in two different wars. "They manipulated the entire situation."

"Their [refusal to work with our LGBT movement] and Ms. Senese's subsequent spin was a real education in how these things are done," said Wilson. "And we were gullible to believe they actually intended to work with us, when we read her quotes in the Press' October article."

Still as clear as mud

Two months later, Wilson said it's hard to get one's head around what CBS considers negative, "when compared to other billboards they have run."

Wilson referenced several messages CBS has approved and displayed:

  • Huge "converting pansies daily" gun shop billboard CBS in North Carolina
  • Series of California billboards promoting a porn convention
  • Large billboard accusing President Obama of "appeasing terrorists"
  • Three-story high billboard in Florida that says the Pope is the Anti-Christ

"Our artwork is an endearing reference to the United States Pledge of Allegiance," Wilson said. "This is where CBS draws the line? Is the positive promotion of equality in Holland, Michigan more foul than pornography? Is our message more negative than declaring the leader of Catholic Church to be the Anti-Christ? We're a solutions-driven community of people, but in order to navigate, we need to know the rules, and they need to be... not insane."

Lies, lies, and more lies

The headline of the Press article, featuring the quote from Senese, turned out to be a lie in itself: "Billboard company to run gay rights group's message protesting Holland vote after 'misunderstanding.'"

This headline contained two lies. There was nothing to misunderstand. As the story went to print in the Press, CBS Outdoor faxed us a pair of locations they would offer us and a notice that we'd have to get different artwork, because they refused to run ours. One option CBS offered was a section of west Wealthy Street that would be closed for construction.

In order to get this space, we'd have needed to create and submit new artwork - specifically, something without our website address. CBS told us their policy prohibited displaying a website address. Later they'd explain that URLs were not important anyway, because "98% of people who see a billboard do not remember the website address."

"Our website address is about half the total content and it's vitally important," Wilson said. "We were told to submit new artwork and strip it out, as it violated policy. We were confused because our message was legal, respectful, constructive and positive: we sought to utilize a billboard space, which we consider a public accommodation, as a paid outlet to advance a dialog. Holland City Council members who voted against the protections for LGBT folks said they wanted more public conversaton on the issue of LGBT, and we considered this billboard a part of that dialog. That's why we tried to get one, plain and simple."

What is the policy?

Rapid Growth Media ran an investigative feature article in November that discovered dozens of prominent examples of CBS displaying billboards with website addresses, which lead to questions about what "policy" prohibited the display of website address.

"We called them to ask for a meeting to learn more about their policy and how we could work within their guidelines," Tuffelmire said. "They agreed to meet with us in mid-November."

On November 11, Tuffelmire and fellow Until Love Is Equal volunteer Christian Montesinos met with CBS representative Tracy Wink at the company's office in Grand Rapids.

During this meeting, Wink eventually offered to allow a four-inch high represenation of our URL at the very bottom of the double-sized billboard. Wink said CBS still refused to run our artwork, which hadn't changed since we first submitted it in September. The billboard would be offset from an expressway by some distance.

Wink went on to reveal that CBS had created new artwork for us (see below) and she went further: we could either show the artwork they created... or nothing.

This is the artwork CBS created for our LGBT organization: 

It's understandable to wonder, "What's so bad about this? It's not that much different - why didn't Until Love Is Equal just accept this?"

If you order your favorite toppings on a pizza, and the server decided to cross out one topping upon submitting the order, you'd have almost exactly the same thing you ordered. But you'd send it back.

There was nothing wrong with our artwork. There is nothing wrong with our message. It's a thought-provoking and distinctly American phrase that means something. We pledge allegiance to a flag that represents freedom and protection from harm. CBS is a private company that publicly displays messages, for money, and people take in these messages while driving to Holland from Grand Rapids, for example. The public takes in these messages. CBS essentially curates what is seen along many of our state's highways by millions of people.

Our message of equality was refused. Our artwork was rejected. Our message was deemed negative. And a media conglomerate deflected any and all accountability and criticism, by turning the whole thing around on us.

But this is what really happened. This is why we didn't get a billboard.

And now we go from here.


*A paragraph above, now appearing in italics, has been changed to clarify the situation referenced in comments affixed to this story. These changes were made by the author after consulting with the editor of the Rapidian and others in the Public Relations profession. My name is Erin Wilson, I am the author of this article, and I have worked proudly in both public relations and journalism - I respect and admire those who do it well. I would like to apologize for any pejorative collateral references to public relations professionals or journalists. I'm grateful the Rapidian has a dynamic function that allows commenting, and for those who have taken the time to do so. I hope this piece now better reflects what actually happened. Happy New Year everone. /etw

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I've supported Until Love is Equal with a cash donation, I appeared in its video/psa and have shared its message on my social network and written to the City Commission where I live asking it to add anti discrimination langauge to its personnel policy, but I don't appreciate the pot shot at public relations professionals in this piece.

We can do a lot, but we can't manipulate the media. There are times when I wish the hell I could, but after 25 years in PR, I've not been able to do more than help the media understand my company's point of view. Never, ever manipulated a headline. And what's with the well-paid? Fact or speculation? 

I don't appreciate the underhanded insult to my profession.

I'm so sorry Roberta. I could say sentence was conditional based on the word "ability," or that I'm borderline exhausted and this rock may not be meant to be pushed up this hill, but at the end of the day, something got sloppy and I insulted a friend. Please accept my apology: it's not the group's fault, it's mine, for not taking enough care with that sentence. This whole thing has been just... for what it's worth, I was referring to a VP in NYC but again, I'm getting sloppy, and it's cause to consider some big picture things when there's friendly fire. I hope you can accept my apology and offer to rephrase that as I promise I intended to.


Very sincerely,