You've probably seen or heard about the ads: Michael J. Fox bobs and weaves while talking about a republican candidate's opposition to stem cell research. I guess there's one running in my state, now, too. Initially, Rush Limbaugh claimed Fox was gimping it up in the ads, either by skipping his meds or by simply faking up his Parkinson's symptoms. Later, apparently, he "apologized," but charged that "Michael J. Fox is allowing his illness to be exploited and in the process is shilling for a Democrat politician." Now, a hastily-produced response ad featuring some B-list celebrities is responding, urging that Missouri reject a ballot initiative on stem cell research (main points: initiative creates constitutional protection for stem cell research, poor women will be trapped into donating eggs for money, usable stem cell treatments still 15 years away).
I think the Fox ad is extremely effective, in a way that can't be neutralized by trotting out some pro-life athlete or actor. See, the public has already decided this one: whether they understand the science, whether they understand the work that remains to be done, they're in favor of helping sick people, and just as with in vitro fertilization, they're not as concerned with what happens to the embryos are they are with what happens to Michael J. Fox, because they are not of equal moral worth. And the ad just reminds them of this, in a memorable way. It's silly to think that they only feel this way because Michael J. Fox told them to.
But is Rush right? Is he being exploited? No. I doubt very much that Fox believes that he will benefit from stem cell research. I doubt he's getting paid scale. I doubt he's being held in the chair against his will until he finishes shooting a dozen spots. Is he a shill? Well, no more than anybody else who lends their name and image to endorse a product/service/cause/candidate.
Look, I know there a thousands of sick people who would be happy stand in for Fox; we'd love to tell the folks out there in TV-land about our illnesses, how our lives have changed as a result, and to talk about why it's so important that the government not squelch this research by closing the federal purse. I'm happy, though, that Fox is doing it, because everyone knows who he is, or was; because everybody knows his story; and because he's so darned cute.
And if Fox was exaggerating his symptoms, if he was gimping it up? Fine. I hereby grant to Michael J. Fox the right to supplement his symptoms with my symptoms: he's free to add a couple stutters, wobbles, and tremors, and, if he wants, he should feel free to wet his pants on my behalf, too, because nobody asked me to appear in an ad. If that's the worst distortion or deception that happens in a political ad this season, we can all rejoice.
Link to short NYT piece about the Fox ads.