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Industry Eyes 'Minors' Code: Self-Regulation Would Cover Cigs, Liquor, Other Age-Restricted Areas

By Published on .

The advertising industry's self-regulatory arm is considering establishing a voluntary code of conduct and setting up a new unit to review complaints about whether ads for products such as cigarettes and alcoholic beverages influence minors.

Those self-regulatory procedures could ease pressure on the industry, which is facing internal dissension, court battles and threats of government intervention over tobacco marketing methods and the airing of hard-liquor ads on TV and radio.

DISCUSSED AT NARC

Top board members of the National Advertising Review Council discussed the issue during a meeting in New York on Dec. 4; it's expected to be a formal part of the agenda at an NARC board meeting later this month.

"We have been looking at whether or not we can set up, within NARC, a unit that would deal with age-restricted advertising," said O. Burtch Drake, president-CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. Affected categories would include beer, gaming, liquor, tobacco and wine, and any other products that can't be sold to or consumed by minors, he said.

Implementing such a plan won't be easy. NARC would need to build industry consensus and secure commitments from marketers to adhere to voluntary guidelines.

NARC is overseen by the Four A's, American Advertising Federation, Association of National Advertisers and Council of Better Business Bureaus.

In addition to gaining approval from the boards of those groups, Mr. Drake said, "We would need agreement from key players in the industries that this is a good idea, that they'd participate in it."

JUST A `CONCEPT' NOW

"This is a concept only at this point," he added. "A lot of bases have to be touched."

NARC currently includes two hearing boards-the National Advertising Division and Children's Advertising Review Unit-and one appeals unit, the National Advertising Review Board. The proposed fourth ad review unit, though, would significantly alter NARC's current mandate and raise numerous questions.

NAD reviews look at measures such as advertising's fairness and accuracy, while CARU looks at accuracy and some other elements of kids' ads.

But, said Mr. Drake, "Where you start talking about advertising designed for adults that may influence teen-agers, you're in an exceptionally subjective area."

When companies agree to resolve fairness and accuracy issues at NAD and CARU, the industry boards serve as a clear alternative to government intervention, with the possibility that any unresolved disputes will go to the Federal Trade Commission for resolution.

UNCLEAR FTC AUTHORITY

The FTC has clear authority to resolve fairness and accuracy issues. Its authority in a case where an ad for an adult product targets minors, however, isn't as clear.

In addition, examining underage issues could force an NARC hearing board for the first time to look beyond the ads into media issues, frequently the focus of age-related complaints.

Still, AAF President Wally Snyder said self-regulation is preferable to government intervention.

"There is a strong feeling that we should move forward in the industry in taking care of this issue," he said.

Mr. Snyder said he is hopeful that, because of the legal uncertainties, an industry panel might have greater leeway than a federal agency in looking at advertising issues.

"We have always believed that while it is important to defend the First Amendment rights, it is also important for us to try to define solutions," he said.

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