FORUM;SELF-REGULATION CAN SOLVE TOBACCO, LIQUOR AD FUROR

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The time has come for the ad industry-and nobody else-to draw up a voluntary code of self-regulation for the cigarette and alcoholic beverage industries. I also believe it should be written and administered by the National Advertising Review Council.

Granted, the ad review council primarily handles issues involving truth and accuracy. But in the case of cigarette and liquor promotion, NARC could design guidelines and monitor adherence through a special panel as it has done for children's advertising.

It's appalling to me that Seagram is flouting the liquor industry agreement not to advertise its wares on TV. It seems that all they want to do is hand President Clinton a hot issue, as the cigarette companies have done.

I fear the ad industry is prepared to fall on its sword defending the First Amendment and the right of legal products to advertise anywhere they please. Separating tobacco and the surrounding health issues from the marketing practices is a distinction that will be lost on most of the public. It will be easy for politicians to say the ad industry supports exploiting the vulnerability of children.

The beauty of self-regulation is that it eliminates those tricky First Amendment issues . . . If the industry itself were to agree to common-sense restrictions on cigarette promotions, that voluntary agreement would carry a lot of credibility both with the public and with the government.

Whatever its motives, Seagram's TV blitz is sure to create a new set of problems for the advertising industry. The industry will be forced to defend the liquor companies' First Amendment rights to freely advertise a legal product. And just as with cigarette companies, advertising will be seen as a callous and cynical force . . .

The ad industry earnestly believes that if it doesn't defend free speech of cigarette companies-and maybe now liquor companies-the rights of other legal products will be restricted, in a "slippery slope" of anti-advertising legislation. That's why it's crucial to establish, and adhere to, voluntary self-regulatory programs-so advertising doesn't find itself defending the indefensible.

Politicians, cigarette companies and now liquor marketers, each for their own reasons, are using advertising in a way that's harmful to the rest of the ad business. Yet the ad trade associations sit on their hands, citing that First Amendment right to advertise.

If the new liquor controversy plays out like cigarettes, the liquor industry will force a ban on all forms of alcoholic beverage ads on radio and TV. So to protect the liquor industry's right to advertise on TV, the ad trade groups are willing to watch $750 million in broadcast beer and wine advertising go down the drain.

How courageous-and how stupid. What will it take for the ad industry to finally stand up and say this is wrong?

. . . The industry and the public are best protected when we step forward through self-regulation to get problems solved.

If industry lawyers win their case against Food & Drug Administration proposals restricting cigarette marketing, will that be a victory to celebrate? Are children to be left unprotected? Will the public's respect for the advertising community be enhanced?

There is so much to celebrate today. Yet there are these disquieting signs that the commitment to self-regulation is less than complete. Will we seize this window of opportunity to channel the cigarette marketing issue into the self-regulation system? Why do we leave a vacuum that invites the FTC to move into alcoholic beverage advertising?

Our celebration today will have lasting meaning if it inspires us to renewed zeal for the remarkable system that came into existence 25 years ago. Lawyers to the contrary, self-regulation is the sword best suited for keeping government intrusion at bay. Let us vow to make the most of it.M

Mr. Crain is editor in chief of Advertising Age. His remarks are excerpted from a Dec. 4 speech marking the 25th anniversary of the NARC. The council's board later said it is considering self-regulation of "age-restricted" advertising.

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