The new and evocative commercial for General Electric's 4D Ultrasound imaging system, which has been appearing across broadcast and cable networks, opens with a saccharine rendition of Ewan McColl's 1965 love ballad "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." The song serves as background music for a slow motion close-up of a blonde-haired, green-eyed pregnant mother's loving gaze. Still in slow motion, the ad then cuts to the object of her adoration, a GE computer monitor displaying the three-dimensional real-time movements of a golden-hued fetus. Shifting back to the awe-filled mother, the camera pans out and her thirty-something, waspish husband's anxious face appears. The next cut reveals a medical technician running the ultrasound transducer over the pregnant woman's stomach, as the GE monitor in the foreground highlights the movements of the fetus.
The clincher comes when a soft male voice enters over the music: "When you see your baby for the first time on the new GE 4D ultrasound system, [pause] it really is a miracle." The ad then closes by juxtaposing the fetal profile with the profile of the newborn infant as the parents hold the baby joyously in their arms.
It's not difficult to understand why pro-life conservatives are using the word "miracle" to describe the free political advertising that GE has so generously provided. Indeed, a recent report on James Dobson's Family News in Focus radio program characterized the reaction of pro-life interests:
Laura Echevarria, with the National Right to Life Committee, said this is a boost for the pro-life movement. "We are seeing that as technology rapidly advances, that it will become undeniable that the unborn child is human and deserves protection just like everyone else," Echevarria said. She cited recent polls that show the American public split 50-50 on the abortion issue, with the pro-life viewpoint gaining acceptance. She added that she'll take all the free advertising she can get. "Certainly, having a four-dimensional sonogram commercial air during Friends ... there's no way we could have been able to pay for that kind of ad," Echevarria said. And that, she said, is a miracle as well.
Like all good propaganda, the 4D Ultrasound commercial is a milieu of clever illusion. As GE explains on its Web site, the golden hue of the fetus is a technological additive, designed for aesthetic appeal. Meanwhile, the commercial intentionally blurs the distinction between a fetus and a newborn infant. The fetus as shown in the commercial appears to be in the late stage of pregnancy, and very close in appearance to an actual newborn child, yet medical literature on the new 4D Ultrasound describes its main benefit as specific to the first trimester.
The commercial is part of a new General Electric strategy to advertise medical technology directly to consumers, bypassing physicians and medical organizations. Borrowing a page from pharmaceutical companies, the 4D Ultrasound commercials are directed at manipulating consumers into showering their doctors and hospitals with requests for the new imaging system, thereby creating pressure on hospitals to acquire the device. But though the 4D ultrasound commercial might make for smart advertising, to what degree could it impact public perceptions of abortion?
An analysis of 30 years of poll trends by Columbia University political scientist Robert Shapiro finds that public support for abortion has increased significantly since the 1960s, but circumstances surrounding the procedure deeply affect attitudes. Today, more than 90 percent of Americans favor abortion if the woman's life is threatened, but less than 45 percent of Americans favor abortion upon demand.
Contrary to the claims of religious conservatives who warn that "liberal" portrayals of the family on network television are undermining American values, the best analyses of entertainment find that television has consistently favored traditional norms relevant to family life and sex roles. In fact, even nontraditional TV portrayals of the family -- including single parents, mixed race or interfaith families, or gay couples -- invariably lag behind demographic changes in the U.S. population. As for portrayals of abortion, the procedure is a consistently rare event on television. The result for heavy viewers tends to be attitudes about society that are in line with the conservative norms that they encounter in TV land.
Indeed, in their recent book Television and Its Viewers: Cultivation Theory and Research, communication researchers James Shanahan and Michael Morgan find support for the notion that television has a conservative influence on public attitudes toward abortion. In an analysis of national-level survey data, Shanahan and Morgan show that self-described liberals who are light viewers of television are strong supporters of abortion upon demand, whereas heavy-viewing liberals have opinions on the issue that are much closer to self-described conservatives and moderates.
Television viewing, therefore, appears to impact the abortion views of liberals but does not contribute to the views of conservatives. The reason, Shanahan and Morgan suggest, is that television portrayals of abortion are consonant with conservative viewpoints. By contrast, liberals at large in the world of television encounter majority moral viewpoints that are rather different from their own. In this regard, the best academic research provides a description of television that differs substantially from the conjecture and strong claims that dominate the rhetoric of the religious right. So perhaps the National Right to Life Committee should be glad not only about the GE ad, but about the "miracle" of television generally.