A FAIR FTC PACT?

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Since the late 1970s, when the Federal Trade Commission ignited a fire storm by saying it could ban all TV ads directed to young children as "unfair," the ad business has said, "Never again!" Never again should Congress allow FTC to threaten whole categories of ads based on ill-defined notions of fairness rather than the better understood idea of deception.

In the long-running Congressional deadlock that followed, ad industry lobbyists came away with a series of temporary victories that closed the door on any repeats of the "kid-vid" war. Today, however, the issue is back on the Capitol Hill bargaining table with the blessing of a major ad industry association, the American Advertising Federation.

The compromise the industry is being offered-and that the AAF board supports-is a major concession to key House members who warn they won't accept any more stop-gap restrictions on FTC or support the permanent changes in FTC authority that the industry has been seeking.

What advertisers get in new FTC legislation pending before a Senate-House conference committee are requirements written into law that are meant to set tight standards of proof FTC must meet in order to take action against advertising it considers unfair-no matter whether it is challenging one advertiser or an entire industry.

The FTC would have to show substantial, unavoidable injury is involved in an alleged unfair practice, and that the injury is not outweighed by other benefits to consumers or competition. To justify industrywide bans, FTC must show the abuse is truly widespread.

Though these standards were embraced by the Reagan and Bush FTCs, ad industry legal experts, we're certain, will debate their value as protection against some future unjustified FTC action. It is not the clear-cut victory they would prefer (especially when pressure groups are keeping the "unfair ad" issue alive), but the compromise has value as insurance.

While President Carter's FTC could write its own road-map in pursuing alleged unfairness, this compromise would mean President Clinton's FTC will have to walk a much narrower path when considering regulation of advertising.

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