O.J. SALES OFF 6%, LIMBAUGH EFFECT?

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Orange juice sales nationwide were down 6% in the month of March compared with the same period a year ago, according to the first sales report since the Florida Citrus Commission made the controversial decision to advertise on the Rush Limbaugh radio talk show.The commission says it is too early to tell if the drop in sales has anything to do with orange juice boycotts called by

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Orange juice sales nationwide were down 6% in the month of March compared with the same period a year ago, according to the first sales report since the Florida Citrus Commission made the controversial decision to advertise on the Rush Limbaugh radio talk show.

The commission says it is too early to tell if the drop in sales has anything to do with orange juice boycotts called by numerous critics of Limbaugh.

"Some people have tried to tie the sales figures, but it's simply not the case," said Pat Carl, a spokesman for the commission. "It's too early to tell if it is tied to our promotional activities."

Carl pointed out that orange juice sales during March of 1993 were the "highest on record" at 62.5 million gallons. Despite the 6% drop this year, sales were still strong, he said. March 1994 sales came in at 58.8 million gallons, making the month the second highest March on record.

Sales figures were compiled by A.C. Nielsen's ScanTrack, which surveys supermarkets nationwide.

Almost 90% of orange juice sold in America contains juice from at least some Florida oranges. More than 60% carry the state's seal of approval or the state's sunshine tree label.

Orange juice sales tend to remain fairly consistent throughout the year, Carl said, with the exception of a slight increase in sales during winter months.

The numbers are more telling, say protesters, when more recent sales figures are taken into account. In January 1994, one month before the launch of the ad campaign, orange juice sales had reached an all-time high of 62.8 million gallons.

The controversy stems from the citrus department's decision to devote $1 million of its new $17 million national ad campaign for ad time on the hugely popular Rush Limbaugh talk show, which reaches some 15 million listeners.

The commission says that it bought air time on Limbaugh's radio show in order to reach the biggest possible national audience with its health-oriented orange juice ads.

Several groups, including the National Organization for Women, the Florida Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, and the Gay and Lesbian Americans, initiated nationwide boycotts of orange juice. They say the commission should not support Limbaugh because he denigrates women and minorities.

"Picking a hate monger like Rush Limbaugh to promote orange juice is distasteful," NOW President Patricia Ireland said during a protest rally at a unit of Kash n' Karry Food Stores in Tampa, Fla.

Limbaugh fans have staged counter protests. In several supermarkets, supporters have staged orange juice "buycotts" in which they buy all supplies of orange juice in an effort to increase sales overall.

The commission has been tracking correspondence regarding the controversy since ads started running in February. To date, more than 13,000 people have contacted the commission to express their opinions: 58% are opposed to the decision to advertise on Limbaugh's show, while 42% are in favor, according to commission reports.

The commission says it has no plans to change its promotion contract with Limbaugh, which runs through August.