PM fires up warning over tobacco ad limits

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Knight-Ridder's move could start trend

Philip Morris Cos. is delivering a thinly veiled warning to publishers thinking of restricting tobacco advertising.

The warning--that the conglomerate's food and beer ads could also be at risk--comes even as critics who swayed Knight-Ridder to ban such ads as those featuring R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.'s Joe Camel shoot for bigger game: Gannett Corp., Time-Warner, Times-Mirror, Tribune Co. and 3M National Media.

"We will not under any circumstances allow publishers to dictate the contents of our ads," said Karen Daragan, manager of media affairs for PM. "Based on a case by case study, we and our other operating companies will make a judgment [on whether to buy ads in] individual newspapers and magazines."

Philip Morris' other operating companies include Miller Brewing Co. and Kraft Foods.

How real the threat is remains uncertain. Guidelines adopted by Knight-Ridder seem aimed more at Philip Morris' rivals than PM. Knight-Ridder--whose daily newspapers include the Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami Herald, and Charlotte (N.C.) Observer--approved the rules to avoid a stockholders meeting fight with the Interfaith Council for Corporate Responsibility.

"Advertisements should be rejected based on content when...the characters are cartoonlike and could be interpreted as targeted for children or teen-agers," said one section of the guidelines. Another would bar slogans like "cool," "alive with pleasure" or "good life." The guidelines specifically say that their effect should be applied not only to run of press, but to Sunday magazine Parade and preprints.

RJR, much of whose current Camel advertising from Mezzina/Brown, New York, would be affected, decried Knight-Ridder's action. The company noted a Federal Trade Commission study found there was no evidence the Joe Camel character encourages teen-agers to smoke.

However, an RJR spokeswoman also said the company viewed ad decisions on its tobacco business and its non-tobacco Nabisco Brands unit separately. "That is taking my marbles and going home," the spokeswoman said.

Mezzina/Brown President Bill Brown also called the Knight-Ridder action unwarranted, though he said he had less problem with the newspaper chain's action than with that of the Clinton administration. A Food & Drug Administration proposal currently pending would place severe restrictions on tobacco ads.

"We have no problem with self-censorship," Mr. Brown said. "Our concern is government censorship. But if [Knight-Ridder is] going to censor [its] advertising, I would not look to [it] for pure editorial objectivity."

Lorillard Tobacco Co. could not be reached for comment. The marketer's Newport brand uses the "Alive with pleasure" theme.

Knight-Ridder officials said the "cool" slogan wasn't aimed at a specific cigarette and would not ban advertising for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.'s Kool brand.

Parade said it has never run Joe Camel ads. "Knight-Ridder has not sent guidelines to us, but their guidelines are consistent with our own," said Publisher Carlo Vittorini.

The tobacco industry spent $21 million last year on newspapers with another $21 million spent on Sunday magazines. Philip Morris spent $3 million on Newspaper and $10 million on Sunday magazines, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

The Knight-Ridder decision followed John Fontaine's election as company president. Mr. Fontaine said individual papers are free to implement the policy as is or to make changes and he said some indicated they may ban tobacco advertising.

"These are some suggested guidelines on how we would look at this at the corporate level," he said. The council put similar resolutions on several other media companies' ballots in the past and intends to do so again.

The Rev. Michael Crosby, head of the tobacco project, said his group is already "in heavy negotiation with 3M over outdoor" signage; met with both Gannett and Time-Warner last week and is preparing resolutions for both Tribune and Times Mirror stockholders. While he generally declined to discuss meeting details, he said he got more attention after revealing Knight-Ridder's actions.

The Interfaith Council offers a variety of corporate resolutions on behalf of investors who generally are employees of religious orders or organizations. Not all of the resolutions are aimed at media companies.

The Marin Institute, one group that has been offering proposals aimed at alcohol advertising at Anheuser-Busch Cos. meetings, said Knight-Ridder's willingness to act may prompt it to also target media companies, though not until 1997 annual meetings.

"We are kind of following the lead of those in the tobacco fight," said Jim Mosher, a research fellow at the San Francisco institute. "It wouldn't be a surprise" for Marin Institute to try some proposals before media companies.

Tobacco companies were quick to warn that publishers were opening up the door to controversy.

"We believe that this policy is unnecessary, since our product and advertising is legal and accurate and is not designed to appeal to minors," said Ms. Daragan. "Once publishers succumb to pressure, where does it end?"

Copyright November 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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