Give self-regulation a hand

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The days since the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington remind us advertising is an area of increased sensitivity. It must be sensitive to its times as well as truthful and accurate. The ad industry handles sensitivity with self-restraint. The industry's National Advertising Review Council handles truth and accuracy with self-regulation.

Here is a challenge for all with a stake in national advertising.

Thirty years ago, corporate leaders took a gamble. With the credibility of advertising under attack by consumerists and government, they wagered the national ad community would enlist in an unprecedented program of self-regulation to regain public con- fidence and to protect the value of their advertising investments. Major advertisers and agencies responded by helping to fund the effort and by agreeing to submit to peer review of their own ads. Their creation, the National Advertising Review Council, is a partnership of the Association of National Advertisers, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the American Advertising Federation and the national Coun-cil of Better Business Bureaus (long active in self-regulation of local advertising).

Three decades later, however, NARC and the groups for which it sets policy-the National Advertising Division (NAD), Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) and National Advertising Review Board (NARB)-are almost taken for granted.

This is a call for change. While the industry groups closest to NARC are convinced it has great, unrealized potential, the challenge is to re-energize the support from companies and people in the national ad community. To begin that process, NARC has restored a full-time president's position to explore new ideas and build interest among key constituencies in business, government and the public.

NARC needs the interest of business leaders at high levels. Though the public climate surrounding advertising may be less alarming today than it was in 1971, when CEOs created NARC, there are important issues that a well-funded self-regulation program can address. I can think of 10 good reasons there is greater need to support self-regulation in advertising than at any time in the past 30 years.

* Active consumerists. Consumer groups new and old, including those inspired by Ralph Nader, constantly present a critical view of advertising to lawmakers and regulators. Today's hot issues include health claims in ads, demands for tighter privacy protections in marketing and broader attacks on "commercialism."

* Active government. Republicans in the White House and at key regulatory agencies do not mean advertising and marketing issues are ignored. The Federal Trade Commission has heaped the highest praise on our self-regulatory process, but it and the Food & Drug Administration remain active ad regulators.

* New products and new media create new problems. New regulations created a huge category of products-dietary supplements-and with them new advertising pitfalls. "New media" created problems with privacy, particularly as it applies to kids.

* Brand loyalty requires consumer trust. That trust must be built on truth and accuracy in advertising, which is what NARC is all about.

* You already have a stake in NARC's continued success. A partial list of stakeholders includes advertisers, ad agencies, media, law firms, direct marketers, promotional agencies and consumers.

* There's a new, recommitted NARC. The self-regulatory policy-making body, NARC has been reconstituted by its four partners to provide timely and improved services.

* NARC has bold new plans. It will create strategic initiatives to help advertisers with "hot issues." A March NAD conference, "Health claims in advertising: from food to pharmaceuticals," will convene advertisers, regulators and consumer groups. And CARU will turn its attention to the global and domestic threats to children's advertising.

* Self-regulation is smart business. It provides a level playing field. Continuing NAD improvements provide the quickest, least expensive and most effective way for advertisers to challenge one another's claims. A court case can take over a year (vs. NAD's 60 business days) and cost 10 times as much as a NAD case.

* Plus, NAD is getting better. There's little satisfaction in seeing a competitor's false or disparaging ad run while a case drags on. We've expedited the case-handling process.

* Self-regulation stays ahead of the curve to protect advertisers and minimize government involvement. Strategic initiatives are intrinsic to CARU procedures and guidelines, which address advertisers' need to deal sensitively and honestly with the under-13-year-old-audience. The CARU privacy guidelines were so on-target that the FTC chose CARU to receive its first "Safe Harbor" privacy endorsement. This means the FTC does not investigate an advertiser's Web site if that site qualifies for the CARU "Safe Harbor" seal.

Here is today's challenge. Prior to NARC, national advertisers were jolted when government forced the industry to change its views about what was, and was not, acceptable in advertising. Major marketers were cited in deceptive advertising cases; a few even faced "corrective advertising" demands. The industry created NARC self-regulation to help see that those times never returned.

The commitment of companies and executives in the past made NARC possible in 1971. Today's generation of business leaders can ensure its success in the future. NARC programs and staff are funded entirely by the business community, and it's been a smart investment-in good times and bad. It deserves your company's support.

Our commitment: Self-regulation preserves the public trust.

Mr. Guthrie, a veteran ad agency and magazine industry executive, was named president of the New York-based National Advertising Review Council in May. He can be reached at jguthrie@narc.bbb.org.

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