In the strongest attack on advertising ever to emanate from the Oval Office, President Clinton last week accused tobacco companies and their agencies of knowingly using ads for illegal purposes and unveiled sweeping final Food and Drug Administration restrictions on tobacco marketing.
"With this historic action today, Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man will be out of our children's reach forever," President Clinton said.
The 192 pages of rules--expected to be published in the Federal Register this week--would ban not only the cartoon camel and legendary cowboy, but all imagery on outdoor boards, in many magazine ads and at most points of sale.
They would bar tobacco companies from giving away merchandise with brand names and from sponsoring events or teams using brand names. All outdoor ads--even text-only boards--would be barred within 1,000 feet of most schools, a move ad groups claim would amount to a ban in many cities.
Advertising groups claim the restrictions will impact $1.14 billion annually in tobacco marketing spending and sharply questioned the legality of the rules. They promised to fight until the end, but worried that even as the rules wend their way through the courts, advertising and media could suffer.
"Since they announced the original proposals [a year ago], things have slowed a little," said Richard Blatt, president of the Point of Purchase Advertising Institute. He said he was worried that marketers facing the prospect of the rules might not be willing to invest in developing materials that might later be banned.
Ad agency executives are also concerned that tobacco companies will be unwilling to create new campaigns or explore new marketing opportunities.
"In my experience, anytime you look at advertising and agencies you have to be looking at the impact," said Hal Shoup, exec VP of the American Association of Advertising Agencies.
The ad industry remained united in its opposition to the rules, despite taking heat for supporting such a controversial product and despite limited support for the FDA action from some corners of the agency and marketing worlds.
Concern about the rules extended beyond U.S. borders. The European Publishers Council, a group of leading European newspaper and magazine publishers, expressed concern that the U.S. move would send a green light to other governments to try similar measures.
The ad rules won't take effect for a year and sponsorships rules for two years, but President Clinton, announcing them on the eve of this week's Democratic National Convention in Chicago, contended they were long overdue.
"Today we are taking direct action to protect our children from tobacco and especially the advertising that hooks children on a product," he said.
"This epidemic is no accident. Children are bombarded daily by massive marketing campaigns that play on their vulnerabilities, their insecurities, their longing to be something in the world. Joe Camel promises that smoking will make you cool. Virginia Slims models whisper that smoking will help you stay thin. T-shirts and sports sponsorships send the message that healthy and vigorous people smoke and that smoking is fun."
U.S. marketing and media groups and tobacco companies denied the charges, noting the Federal Trade Commission--which normally regulates cigarette advertising--has found no evidence of such abuses.
In addition, they said the broad path of the FDA rules extends well beyond the agency's stated target of underage smokers. Instead the rules ban legal advertising aimed at adult smokers, they said.
"Our opposition to the FDA's rule rests not with its stated goal of reducing underage tobacco use but with the FDA's specious and arbitrary interpretation federal law," said Steven Parrish, senior VP-corporate affairs for Philip Morris Cos. "The FDA rules opens a Pandora's box of regulation that tramples on the Constitution and the rights of millions of adult Americans."
Philip Morris filed a lawsuit last year against the original FDA proposal and said it would amend its complaint to try to block the final rules.
Advertising groups have filed their own suit challenging the constitutionality of the original proposal and the jurisdiction of the FDA. They painted a picture last week of the new rules having a devastating impact on the advertising and media industry.
"If you make advertising invisible, no one will want to do it," said Dan Jaffe, exec VP of the Association of National Advertisers, of restrictions that will limit advertising to black-and-white text only and then require more extensive warnings. "No one will spend a dime on advertising that will not work."
Added Mr. Shoup, speaking for the Freedom of Advertising Coalition, made up of advertising and media groups: "Our coalition's opposition to this rule reflects our concern over the enormous impact these advertising restrictions will have on our respective business--impacts such as loss of jobs, loss of business opportunity and loss of creative freedom."
At least one leading tobacco company said it won't back down. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. said last week it believes the FDA rules will be overturned, so it is not changing its strategy or media spending.
But the category's biggest spender, Philip Morris, refused repeated requests to comment on the same issue.
Ad groups bigger concerns, however, were the broad scope of the rules; the FDA's assumption that advertising causes children to start smoking and that reducing advertising would affect underage smoking; and the agency's willingness to unveil the restrictions despite a recent U.S. Supreme Court case that appeared to give broad First Amendment protection to advertising.
"It is unconstitutional, unauthorized and ineffective," said Mr. Shoup of the FDA rules. "It makes good headlines, but lousy policy."
The final FDA rules softened one of the original rules, but toughened another.
Bars and other locations that don't allow children can, under the final rules, display marketing materials with imagery. But sponsorship rules were toughened. The new rules bar tobacco companies not only from using their brand names for event sponsorships but also from using brand names on team sponsorship, such as Marlboro and Winston auto-racing teams.
In one other change, the FDA dropped the requirement that tobacco companies fund a $150 million annual educational effort using mostly TV ads, though the change may be mostly in verbiage. Instead of mandating the ads, the FDA will now use its rules to seek the educational effort as a necessary communication to explain to people how not to use a medical device.
Republicans were quick to suggest that the unveiling of the rules--coming three days before the Democratic convention and in the same week as a report indicating a rise in teenage drug use--was "politically inspired."
Health and Human Services Secretary Donald Shalala praised the rules and called them the most important thing the agency has ever done, surpassing even the fight against polio in the 1950s.
Tobacco critics applauded the rules and dismissed arguments that advertising doesn't inspire children to smoke.
"It's a remarkable charge from an industry that is taking $6 billion that it doesn't credit one additional consumer to the advertising," said Matthew Myers, counsel for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "Every nation that has restricted advertising in combination with an education message has had a serious drop in tobacco among youth."
Copyright August 1996 Crain Communications Inc.