FTC Says They Put 'Pocketbook Interests' Over 'Public Interest'

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A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

WASHINGTON ( -- Magazine publishers told the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday that any attempt to require publishers to screen diet ads for flagrantly false claims will instead result in all ads for diet products being automatically rejected.

The comments were made at an all-day FTC workshop on diet ads after the FTC said that media companies, marketers and advertising groups need to work together to stop the influx of those ads, many of whose weight-loss claims were patently false.

Protecting public interest
"I am asking the industry

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and the media to step up to the plate," said FTC Commissioner Sheila Anthony, who has been leading the assault against diet ads. She said some media companies "are either not paying attention or are placing their pocketbook interests above the public interest they are claiming to serve."

Ms. Anthony wondered if publishers who accepted the ads find it "hard to respect themselves in the morning," and suggested that the lack of attention being paid to bogus ad claims was leading some "normally responsible" marketers to follow the lead of their more irresponsible competitors.

Michael Pashby, executive vice president and general manager of the Magazine Publishers of America, said rejecting some ads while accepting others could leave publishers open to lawsuits. He said publishers would rather choose to remove all such diet ads, even those that had no problems, than review individual copy.

Reviewing ads
Mr. Pashby warned that reviewing ads would "open the door" to having to screen ads for other industries.

J. Howard Beales III, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said the FTC didn't expect media companies to extensively review ad copy, but did believe that they should at least read ads and reject obviously phony claims.

"We aren't looking for media companies to set up an elaborate review process," he said. "We want a simple reading. There are always gray areas, but that doesn't mean you can ignore the black and white."

Scam artists
He suggested that media companies had built up trust with their readers and urged them not to let "scam artists get you to misuse that trust."

Despite the protestations of magazine publishers at the hearing, spokesmen for newspapers and cable companies suggested that more specific warnings on what constitutes bogus claims would be helpful in identifying ads that shouldn't run.

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CORRECTION: The original version of this story quoted Mr. Pashby as saying he meant his comments about pulling ads to be "a threat." Mr. Pashby subsequently denied that characterization. He said he meant that the FTC's actions represented a threat to publishers.

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