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SELF-REGULATION;ACCEPTING RESPONSIBILITY FOR THEIR ACTIONS; HOW THE ADVERTISING BUSINESS TOOK STEPS TO LESSEN THE THREAT OF GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION

By Published on .

A moment of silence, please, while today's generation of advertising people counts its blessings-in particular, the industry's self-regulation system, now celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Advertising self-regulation is a success story in which businessmen, by accepting responsibility for their actions, have gotten the government off their backs. By handling these matters rapidly and at minimum cost, the system serves both business and government.

In that moment of silence, recall also the all-but-forgotten era when advertising people were disparaged as "hucksters." How does one put a price on the contribution self-regulation has made to the well-being of every advertising person? Consider this:

SELLING HIS NAME

As the recently designated Advertising Age Washington correspondent in 1944, I was elated by the opportunity to interview advertising legend Chester Bowles, then in wartime government as administrator of wartime price controls.

Less than a decade earlier he had been among those who established the prototype for great advertising agencies-Benton & Bowles. Expectantly, I asked him: "How does government service compare with the ad agency business?"

Half a century later I still feel his icy response: "Young man, the worst mistake I ever made was to sell my name when I retired from the agency."

Both he and his partner, William Benton, spent their remaining years working for public causes. Advertising had made him rich. But now that it was behind him he was embarrassed to be identified with it.

NON-INTRUSIVE SERVICE

Twenty-five years of testing leaves no doubt that the people who created advertising self-regulation designed a service so non-intrusive that the individual advertising person is barely aware of its existence. Yet this was not done with general acclaim and it was not accomplished easily.

Nor would it be honest to pretend that the happy results are solely because of a modest little organization, the National Advertising Review Council.

On this anniversary, it is important to recall the sea-change that occurred in the advertising industry's understanding of its civic responsibilities. This is the factor that distinguishes successful self-regulation from window-dressing. More on this later.

ROUGH TIMES

This is not the time nor place to recapitulate the warfare that raged during the 1960s between advertising industry leaders and consumer activists over such issues as deceptive packaging, deceptive nutritional claims, deceptive product demonstrations in TV commercials and deceptive ads to children. But it is not a period that advertising people would want to relive.

The amoral adman had been effectively stereotyped by best-sellers like Paul de Kruif's "100,000,000 Guinea Pigs" in the 1930s and Frederic Wakeman's "The Hucksters" in the 1940s.

The new assaults of the 1960s found ready believers and admen, returning to their suburban Connecticut homes, found themselves confronted by teen-age sons and daughters, asking: "Dad, is this how you spend your day?"

Each issue of Advertising Age in those years brought news of new proposals for government intrusion in the ad business. At the Federal Trade Commission, the consumer revolt materialized in a docket spiced with cases against TV's biggest advertisers. Companies were staking their futures on these ads and the government was warning that the ads might be deceptive.

AN INDUSTRY DILEMMA

The industry was in a dilemma. What critics saw as deception, the advertising giants of that day-the people who built the industry-saw as puffery. Surely these attacks were merely the mistaken ideas of people who did not understand the free enterprise system.

When President Lyndon Johnson designated Esther Peterson, a former

Assistant Secretary of Labor, as his advisor on consumer affairs,

Printer's Ink, a pioneer advertising trade paper, then in its declining

years, warned that she was the most dangerous person in Washington. In

reality she was a woman deeply committed to the belief that progress is

achieved by finding consensus, and she was prepared to cede much if

business would help solve some of the problems that were piled on her

desk. But advertising's leaders could not believe she was serious or that

compromise was the solution.

SOME BAD ADVICE

When industry associations talked about "self-regulation" in those days

they visualized a "code of principles" with no teeth. Their lawyers told

them they had less to fear from government, where their rights are spelled

out by law, than from self-regulation, where there is no recourse if you

don't like the procedure or the decision.

History attests this was bad advice.

By stonewalling, they invited intrusion: a ceaseless proliferation of

laws and procedures expanding the legal definition of deception and making

retribution swifter and costlier. Only after a Supreme Court decision

upheld FTC's challenge to a TV demonstration for Rapid Shave did some

begin to sense that this stonewalling was a dead-end strategy.

COSTS WERE STAGGERING

By then the costs were already staggering. On a single morning before the

Senate Commerce Committee, consumer advocate Robert Choate turned the

breakfast cereal industry on its head with a presentation demonstrating

that heavily advertised cereal brands were replete with "empty calories."

LeRoy Collins, the nationally admired former governor of Florida, rattled

the broadcast industry by resigning as president of the National

Association of Broadcasters over NAB's refusal to face the problems

created by cigarette advertising (whic

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