It’s Funny What Passes For Offensive These Days

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A billboard critical of Mercury Insurance is taken down after the firm
complains. But a vodka ad suggestive of part of the female anatomy is
still eliciting gasps.

The ads weren’t far from each other on Wilshire Boulevard in Koreatown.

One, on a billboard, was critical of an automobile and home insurance company.

The other, draped across the sprawling face of a tall building, was a
vodka promotion that appeared to include an essential part of the
female anatomy.

Any guess which one was torn down because of a complaint?

"Truth is more controversial than pornography," said Harvey Rosenfield,
founder of Consumer Watchdog, whose ad was dismantled last week. All
the ad said was, "You Can’t Trust Mercury Insurance," with a referral
to Consumer Watchdog’s website, which lays out 10 concerns the
organization has with Mercury.

And the other billboard?

"If you drive three to four blocks east of where ours was," said
Rosenfield’s colleague, Jamie Court, "there’s a huge Absolut Mango ad,
and it’s really not a mango."

Court said he was alerted by his wife, who happened upon it while driving and made the following observation:

"There’s a five-story vagina on a building."

Having visited the location Tuesday afternoon, I’d like to make a clarification.

There’s a 10-story vagina on a building.

Sure, art is in the eye of the beholder, but I know a mango when I see one.

A pedestrian walked by on Wilshire and I asked his thoughts. He gazed up and said:

"What is it, a womb?"

"Close," I said.

Across the street at the non-denominational Christ Church of the Living
Christ and the Loving Heart, secretary and longtime congregant Mary
Metz said she hadn’t noticed the ad. But when she walked out with me
and looked up, she gave a little nod and said:

"Oh, yes."

Meaning what?

It certainly could be seen as suggestive, Metz said. And she was not the least bit surprised.

"The world’s going to hell in a handbag," she said.

Indeed. I keep lighting candles and it doesn’t seem to help.

But let’s get back to the billboard that was brought down after Mercury
complained to CBS Outdoor. As Rosenfield points out, CBS Outdoor had
approved the ad before it went up at Wilshire and Wilton Place. For
nearly two weeks, there was no problem, but then Mercury’s lawyers
complained to CBS and that was the end of it.

But the company may have traded one problem for another: Rosenfield is
so ticked off, he says he is thinking about running for state insurance

My calls to Mercury and to CBS Outdoor produced zilch. CBS said it had
no new comment and referred me to someone in New York, where I left a
message. A Mercury spokesman said there was nothing to add to the
insurance company’s written statement last week:

"CBS apparently has considered our comments and, as a responsible
organization, has removed the defamatory statements from their
billboard. Consumer Watchdog’s claims about Mercury Insurance and its
motivation are without merit."

Thanks, but I’d prefer to have someone from Mercury explain exactly
what’s defamatory and which claims are without merit. I’d like to know,
in particular, because I’m a Mercury client and I’m feeling a little
oily about it.

Is it true, as Consumer Watchdog alleges, that Mercury is an "abusive,
anti-consumer company"? What’s the company’s explanation for backing
legislation that would undermine key consumer protections? And just why
does it dish out so much in campaign contributions? Couldn’t the
company lower my rates instead?

I passed along my request to speak to Mercury Chairman George Joseph,
because I might as well hear from the man at the top. I’m hoping he can
work me into his lunch calendar one of these days. That would also give
me a chance to ask him what he thinks about the prospect of Harvey
Rosenfield running for insurance commissioner, and I suspect the words
"worst nightmare" could be popping into Joseph’s head right now.

Joseph "has never been willing to respect the will of the voters, and I
think it’s finally time for a guy like me to get in there and hold a
guy like that accountable," said Rosenfield, who reiterated that he’s
not yet sure whether he can be a bigger pain to the insurance industry
as an outsider or an insider.

By the way, Mercury’s rates are certainly competitive. I’ve got Mercury
for both auto and home insurance. But I’ve been conflicted as it is,
given Mercury’s manipulation of the political process, and now there’s
the billboard controversy to consider.

Of course, Mercury isn’t the only insurance company that plays hardball
in Sacramento. But it’s one of the bigger players, bankrolling the
campaigns of legislators by the dozens, which never fails to work
wonders and boost industry profits.

Fed-up Californians voted themselves some protection in 1988 with
Proposition 103, but the way Rosenfield tells it, Mercury has steadily
attempted to chip away at those protections. And the insurance giant is
now behind a potential ballot initiative that Rosenfield said would put
a surcharge on customers who have a lapse in coverage because of
unemployment or other factors.

If you’d like more information on all of this, you can go to,
where the agency offers its take on Mercury’s record. As soon as George
Joseph and I break bread, I’ll let you know what he says about it all.

In the meantime, Rosenfield said Consumer Watchdog is talking to
lawyers about suing over the removal of its billboard. He said the
agency had paid for the ad to appear until Sept. 20.

I’m not sure how long the Absolut ad will be up, but Court pointed
out that there’s some Internet chatter about that one and about other
Absolut ads that use a lemon instead of a mango, much to the same

A blogger named Cheryl, at,
spotted the Wilshire ad, took a photo with her BlackBerry and sent it
to an ex, wondering if he saw the same thing she saw. Yes, he
responded. "Sex sells baby!" So Cheryl wrote a ditty:

I was driving along,

Minding my business

When out of an orange-colored sky,

Flash! Bam! Alakazam!

Va-jay-jay caught my eye.

To be honest, I found the Absolut ad silly rather than offensive.

But thin-skinned bullies at an insurance company, using their clout to have a critic’s billboard torn down?

Now that’s offensive.

Contact the author at: [email protected]

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
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