GREAT LEAP FORWARD

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China, we reported last week, is trying its hand at advertising regulation. Can its advertisers survive the experience?

Commercial speech has enjoyed favor under a government not inclined to tolerate other forms of free expression. But Beijing says its first generation of real advertisers hasn't displayed any developed sense of what's right and wrong.

The result, reports China's official Xinhua news service, has been three years of rampant false claims-now to be set right by laws that "protect the legal interests of advertisers and the public" and punish advertisers that violate "the interests or dignity of the nation."

Human rights advocates see much to decry in China, but it's a small encouragement that Beijing proclaims concern about the rights of its citizen-consumers (and advertisers!). Moreover, Chinese industries will eventually learn an ancient Western world advertising truth: If consumers regard them as crooks and their ad messages as lies, their advertising is wasted.

This is a first step, but the road will be bumpy. Can Chinese bureaucrats distinguish between censorship and regulation, and will they be any wiser than other governments in limiting regulation to issues of truth and falsity? Frankly, we doubt it.

With news of China's venture into ad regulation came a dispatch from Singapore, where the Ministry of Information & the Arts criticized the "harmful values" represented in a radio commercial for Qantas, the Australian airline. The ad's crime? Copy referred to "the last of the big spenders," which the ministry charged encouraged reckless spending. The state broadcasting monopoly promptly yanked it.

China's ad critics, like ad critics everywhere, will be offended because advertising can appeal to the materialistic side of human nature, not their idealized view of how people should behave and what they should want. The international advertising community will have a struggle to change that attitude. And with China now writing yet another new set of ad regulations, it's time to begin the educational process.

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