Wham! Bam! Comic Book Ads Target SEC Chairwoman

Posted April 17, 2015 at 4:58pm

The comic book-like frames show hideous monsters oozing through Washington and attacking the White House.

Men, women and children are crying out for help. A would-be hero stands next to a cape, pondering action. It’s not the latest story from the Marvel Universe, but a new advertising campaign that is turning heads in Union Station.

The monsters are the “dark money menace” unleashed by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. The potential hero is Mary Jo White, chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, whom liberal groups are urging to back new rules requiring corporate disclosure of political spending.

The ad space in Union Station is frequently occupied by political messaging. It’s one of the most heavily-trafficked Metro stations in Washington, D.C., and many of its visitors are commuting to high-powered jobs on Capitol Hill. But this campaign is notable for its sheer creativity and eye-catching imagery.

“Mary Jo is the superhero we need to end this menace … But we’re still waiting for her to act,” reads one billboard that shows a cartoon image of White, clad in a superhero costume and battling monsters.

The ads, which encourage people to go to www.WhereIsMJW.com and use the Twitter hashtag “#WhereIsMJW,” will be up for the month of April and are being sponsored by a coalition of liberal advocacy groups, labor unions and environmental organizations eager to curb the role of money in politics.

The comic book theme was developed by Avaaz, an online, global civic advocacy organization that was launched in 2007 and now claims 40 million members.

Terra Lawson-Remer, the campaign and legal director at Avaaz, says the idea was something of a no-brainer.

“She’s a superhero that is in hiding. She hasn’t put her cape on,” Lawson-Remer says. “The narrative was latent. It was there. It was waiting to be told.”

Lawson-Remer, who served as a senior policy adviser at the Treasury Department from 2010 to 2012, says she’s spent enough time in Union Station to know that boring ads on the walls get ignored.

“If we’re going to say something, it should speak to the heart, and speak to the imagination,” she says. The ads were created by a design and branding firm, The Public Society, based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

There’s one other reason that Union Station was chosen. It’s only a few steps away from SEC headquarters.

“We wanted to have people talking about this as they’re going into work,” says Susan Harley, deputy director of the Congress Watch division at Public Citizen, which is helping to pay for the ads along with Avaaz, Common Cause, U.S. PIRG, Greenpeace, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and Communications Workers of America.

“Having it be in [White’s] backyard was our goal,” Harley says.

It’s unclear, however, if White will ever don the cape.

The push for requiring publicly traded companies to disclose their political spending began in 2011 with a rulemaking request to the SEC brought by a group of law professors. Since then, more than 1 million comments have been filed in support of a rule.

Under White’s predecessor, SEC Chairwoman Mary Schapiro, a political spending disclosure rule was placed on the agency’s 2013 agenda of coming proposals. But action wasn’t taken, and it was removed from the SEC’s 2014 agenda after White took over.

White may be reluctant to act in the face of fierce opposition from congressional Republicans and business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The influential business lobby spent a whopping $50 million on the 2014 midterm elections.

An SEC spokesman declined to comment on the issue or the ad campaign, but White has previously signaled skepticism. She said in a 2013 speech that the SEC’s mandatory disclosure powers should be used to inform investors, not make social policy.

That’s how it should remain, according to the U.S. Chamber, which is not impressed with the comic book ads.

“The SEC has made it clear that a campaign finance proposal is not on their agenda, and this is a desperate attempt to pressure the commission to change its mind,” says Chamber spokeswoman Blair Latoff Holmes. “We hope the SEC will continue to see that this issue is not, has never been, and should never be a function of the SEC.”

Lawson-Remer counters that shareholders want to know whether the companies they’ve invested in are engaged in hot-button political fights that could fuel controversy and harm the companies’ bottom line.

“We’re asking the SEC to engage in a rulemaking process that actually is directly addressed at protecting investors and is squarely within their mandate,” she says. “Mary Jo White really could do something important here. It’s within her power.”