Since it was supposed to be a session on "Selling Your Ideas to Senior Management: Presentation or Persuasion?" I tried to wrap my premise in sales talk.
I asked the 50 or so people gathered on the 50th floor of the McGraw-Hill Building whether the advertising trade associations are selling ad people a bill of goods by defending the cigarette companies' First Amendment rights to advertise their legal but highly suspect product.
I also wanted to know whether they thought J. Walter Thompson Co.'s Burt Manning was right in his contention that "dirty tricks" political advertising is responsible for undermining all other advertising.
I got some interesting reactions. There was a cigarette guy in the room, and not surprisingly he said I had my facts all wrong. I contended that the ad trade associations were getting all bollixed up supporting the cigarette marketers' contention that advertising creates no new customers; it simply persuades people to move from brand to brand.
One woman said the First Amendment issue and the creates-no-new-customer argument are completely separate. She supported the ad associations' efforts to go to bat for cigarette advertising's First Amendment rights but not the idea that cigarette ads appeal only to smokers.
Another guy said smoking was "part of life," and he saw nothing wrong with ads showing people enjoying a smoke. A woman said she didn't want government interference anywhere in her life; she also was concerned about the government's efforts to police the Internet.
Basically, there was little sympathy for my view that the trade associations should withdraw their support from cigarette companies' ad rights. I asked for a show of hands and all but a few hardy souls backed the industry position.
I got less feedback on Burt Manning's proposition. One woman said because of provocative and sexy scenes in movies and music videos advertisers were forced to go further and further just to cut through the clutter. Here again, most of the participants defended advertisers' rights to run whatever kind of advertising they wanted even if it caused some consumers to have more negative views of advertising.
One woman claimed people have more negative views of everything right now.
Another woman said we should do our own survey of consumer attitudes on advertising, and she gave me her card.
So I am down but not out. The big question in my mind is how last week's decision knocking down a state ban on advertising liquor prices affects the ad industry's position on cigarettes.
There's no doubt that the Supreme Court decision strengthens protection for commercial speech and may even "cast doubt on the Clinton administration's proposed restrictions on cigarette promotions," as The New York Times reported.
If the High Court decision has the effect of strengthening the ad industry's hand regarding cigarette advertising, does the industry need to be as vocal and vociferous in defending the rights of cigarette advertisers?
Can't the ad trade associations now say the Supreme Court decision speaks for itself, declare a victory and go on to other battles?