Public service ads pulled: FCC drug office rule challenged

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Some congressional leaders are moving to overturn a Federal Communications Commission ruling, four months after it forced public-service groups into a Hobson's choice of either not getting assured airing of their ads or getting them aired but identified as coming from the White House drug office.

"I think the ruling is absolutely stupid," Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., told the House Government Reform panel recently, adding that he expected it would be overturned in legislation. Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, along with Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Joseph Biden, D-Del., also indicated the FCC ruling would likely be targeted in legislation.

The controversy stems from the media match requirement Congress imposed when it agreed to pay to air ads for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Concerned that anti-drug messages weren't getting sufficient airtime, Congress decided to pay for media. But it also required media companies to provide a free ad (or something of similar value) for every paid ad. While some of the free ads were used for the drug office's messages, the office also used some of the bonus time to broadcast public-service messages only loosely related to anti-drug topics.

Those public-service ads are not produced by the White House, and although never identified as such, air as part of drug office media buys.

In November, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws won a ruling from the FCC that the drug office had to be identified as paid sponsor of the ads. That prompted half a dozen groups to pull their public-service spots from rotation.

"We were afraid of people mistaking our work for something [the drug office] had produced," said Todd Post, assistant director of the National Crime Prevention Council.

Among other groups that pulled their ads, according to the Advertising Council, were Al-anon/Al-ateen, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Connect for Kids, National Fatherhood Initiative and Operation Graduation.The Ad Council has been pushing to overturn the decision, arguing that because public-service ads aren't produced or overseen by the White House, their identification as coming from the White House is misleading.

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