Self-regulation Is a Success but It Must Be Guarded

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

As self-regulation goes, the past three decades in the marketing industry have been a success. But it's not one we should take for granted.

It was in 1971 that, feeling the governmental tide turning against it, the industry founded the National Advertising Review Council. But what shouldn't be forgotten is that it was the industry's sins that caused that tide to turn in the first place. From ridiculous claims to dangerous products, marketers and their ad agencies were practically asking for an "adult" to step in.

The marketing business has grown up enough to take care of itself. Sure, marketers still squabble over product claims -- sometimes claims that border on the ridiculous, like, say, the recent case that looked at the amount of toilet paper shown on the rear of an animated bear.

But the fact is, it's serious work. And to be self-regulated is a pretty powerful position to be in. As Uncle Ben told Peter Parker in "Spider-Man," "With great power comes great responsibility." The responsibility thrust upon marketers and ad agencies -- and, increasingly, digital-media companies -- is to take care of our commons. In other words, don't screw it up for everyone else.

Just because something is legal -- or isn't technically illegal -- doesn't mean you should do it.

For example, there's nothing illegal about a product such as Four Loko, but guess what happens when you market an alcoholic energy drink that seems tailor-made for high-school seniors (despite all claims to the contrary)? The government steps in.

Or when you bombard the airwaves claiming that a bracelet has the power to cure everything from fatigue to bad posture.

Or when you play fast and loose with consumers' privacy and data.

Regulators tend to be reactive, so marketers should go out of their way to avoid giving them reason to react.

It's also the responsibility of marketers and agencies to keep abreast of the mood of our elected officials. They're people with vested interests, too, and have pet causes and external pressures.

Maybe they're under pressure to cut budgets and find new streams of revenue. It might be time to explain to them why an ad-tax deduction is a good thing for constituents across the country (rather than simply some goateed creative and his fat-cat overlords on Madison Avenue).

Finally, now is a particularly important time to make sure we're all on our best behavior. The ways in which marketers reach customers are changing fast -- so fast that the last thing the industry needs is governmental interference that could stifle some of the highest potential marketing ideas and opportunities before they even get off the ground.

If legislators are reading scary stories about social-media violations, then we need to teach them about technological advances and precautions the industry is taking to protect consumer data, educate people about internet marketing and give them options to opt out. It's also our responsibility to get on board when the industry puts forth a plan for self-regulation, as it has with its recent plan for online behavioral advertising.

Two of NARC's main goals are to minimize governmental involvement in the advertising business and to foster brand loyalty by increasing public trust in the credibility of advertising.

Anyone working in marketing, media or advertising should strive to do the same.

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