LAKELAND, Fla. -- First it was Anita Bryant. Now it's Rush Limbaugh.
The Florida Citrus Commission here is embroiled in a controversy the likes of which it hasn't seen since 1977 when Florida orange juice spokeswoman and former Miss America contestant Anita Bryant made national headlines for starting an anti-gay campaign.
As a result of her campaign, gays and their supporters protested the citrus commission's contract with Bryant and initiated nationwide boycotts of Florida orange juice.
Now a variety of groups have started a campaign protesting the commission's recent decision to buy advertising on Rush Limbaugh's right-wing radio talk show. The protesters say they are encouraging people not to drink Florida orange juice because Limbaugh regularly denigrates women and minorities.
"Picking a hatemonger like Rush Limbaugh to promote orange juice is distasteful -- about the only citrus that comes to mind when I think of him is very sour lemons," said Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, Washington, the most recent group to join a growing list of organizations voicing opposition to the commission's advertising program.
The commission's $1 million deal with Limbaugh will boost his "financial resources and his ability to continue his daily campaign of hate," said Ireland.
As part of its campaign, NOW volunteers staged a demonstration March 12 at a unit of Kash n' Karry Food Stores in Tampa, Fla. About 200 people showed up, many of whom were supporters of Rush Limbaugh, and who purchased large amounts of orange juice to counteract the demonstrators.
NOW is using such slogans on placards and stickers as, "Flush Rush: Drink Prune Juice." NOW also has initiated a telephone and
letter-writing campaign urging Americans to "exercise their freedom of choice when buying orange juice and all citrus products."
Almost 90% of orange juice sold in America contains juice from at least some Florida oranges; more than 60% carry the Florida seal of approval or the state's sunshine tree label.
In addition to NOW, the Florida chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has issued a protest and started a letter-writing campaign. Two other groups -- the Florida Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, and the Gay and Lesbian Americans -- have initiated formal boycotts of Florida orange juice. Even Florida's Gov. Lawton Chiles has expressed his displeasure with the commission's decision to advertise with Limbaugh.
As when it signed on with Bryant, the commission had no inkling that its decision to advertise on Limbaugh's show would put it right in the middle of a political battle.
"We've been very surprised by the reaction," said Ivy Leventhal, director of public relations for the commission. "Mr. Limbaugh is not our spokesperson, we've merely purchased airtime on his program as part of a broad media [advertising campaign]."
Leventhal pointed out that the commission also has purchased airtime on the Larry King and Dr. Dean Edell radio shows, in addition to signing on with numerous other media outlets.
The controversy has drawn considerable public reaction -- albeit mixed -- since the advertising campaign began in mid-February. Of the nearly 9,400 people who have contacted the commission as of last week, said Leventhal, 52% were against the decision to advertise with Limbaugh, while 48% were in favor. Roughly 40% of the responses were from Floridians.
Among supporters of the commission's decision is a newly formed group calling itself the Unofficial Rush Limbaugh Appreciation Society, based in Orlando, Fla., which is promoting orange juice on the radio. The group is encouraging consumers to wear orange ribbons to show their support and to buy up all the juice in their local supermarkets to offset any downturn in sales that might be felt by boycotts.
The commission has not seen an effect on sales of orange juice stemming from the controversy. One retailer contacted by SN expressed support for the commission and said sales of orange juice have remained stable. "We support Florida citrus products and believe it should always be the customer's choice to buy or not to buy," said Bob McDermott, director of public relations at Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla. "Our citrus sales continue to be strong."