Paternity billboard irks farmers

Shotgun-wedding ad called stereotypical

April 07, 2000|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Route 140 travelers entering Carroll County are greeted by a picture of a scowling man in a scruffy beard. Clad in blue overalls and a tattered straw hat, he chews a blade of grass and clutches a shotgun in his beefy hands. Beside him stands a pony-tailed young woman in a hot-pink dress. Her hands surround a swollen belly.

BRT Laboratories' billboard for DNA paternity testing then lists the company's name and toll-free phone number.

The image of a farmer angry about his daughter's pregnancy has raised hackles in Finksburg and in the surrounding farming community.

"I saw it on my way home and thought, `What an insult to the community,' " said Donald Hoffman, president of Finksburg Planning Council, a citizens group in the gateway community. "We have Pa Kettle with a shotgun that does not even have a trigger lock. It paints Carroll County as rubes."

Some see the billboard as a setback.

"We work so hard to come out of that," said Julie Feeser, who runs a beef, grain and hog farm in Taneytown with her husband, Frank.

Their daughter Monica graduated from Kansas State University with a degree in animal science, and worked for the Michigan Beef Industry Commission.

"I just think the whole thing is offensive," said Sharon Fritz, a New Windsor dairy farmer. "It kind of fosters the stereotype we're trying to get away from."

Terry Houtz, genetic testing manager for BRT, designed the advertisement, which has been rotated among several locations, including U.S. 40 near Aberdeen and in New Jersey and New York.

He chose Finksburg, where the sign will appear through the month, for its high traffic, not its demographics, he said.

"It is a cartoon," said Houtz. "The idea is that it is better to use DNA testing than to have a shotgun wedding."

Few at John's Produce Market near the base of the sign have laughed. Many have complained to Michele Selvi, who owns the market with her husband, John.

The couple would like the company to replace the sign with an apology to farmers.

Stacy Shaffer of Westminster said she understands the need for paternity testing but wonders why the laboratory chose Carroll for its advertisement.

In 1997, the most recent teen pregnancy figures available, Carroll was next to last when ranked with Maryland's other 22 counties and Baltimore City.

"The implication of a shotgun wedding really bothers me," said Shaffer. "This picture conveys the idea that somehow we are more likely to have these troubles than other areas."

Steve Ginsburg, marketing manager for PNE Media, which owns the Finksburg billboard and most others along Route 140, said the company rarely removes signs before a contract expires. Public opinion did force PNE Media to cancel a contract from a strip club recently.

"We just put up the message for our advertisers. We don't deliver the message, and we don't design it," said Ginsburg. "This billboard was not intended to offend Carroll County residents."

When the ad appeared in new Jersey and Harford County, no one took offense, said Houtz and Ginsburg.

"Advertising is meant to get attention, and this one got it," said Houtz, the designer. "People should just relax. It will be down in three weeks."

Sun staff writers Anne Haddad and Sheridan Lyons contributed to this article.

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