From nothing it has grown in a decade or less to an ad category that may have reached $700 million in 1996. At magazines such as Time, it has become the single fastest-growing category in its portfolio of business. The quality of the creative can be lacking, but big league consumer ad agencies have rushed to buy or create specialist units in this new marketing discipline.
It's also a story that is very much unfinished . . . if only the regulators at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration finally ease their hostility toward advertising and conduct an overdue regulatory house cleaning.
Information about prescription products is still more tightly controlled by the FDA than is true for virtually any other major consumer item. With "quack" cures and "snake oil" salesmen burned into its institutional memory, FDA has insisted drug ads meet a warts-and-all disclosure standard where lengthy, often technical, side effect and health warnings (designed for doctors) are grafted onto every consumer print ad insertion; and that broadcast ads, which can't possibly meet these disclosure standards, play a bizarre guessing game with consumers-if the ad names the product, it can't say what the product does; if the ad says what the product does, it can't name it.
There is a way out: a simplified, yet effective, warning to consult a physician about safe use of the product. This would let consumers get the news-yes, advertising is news-they need about prescription items in TV and radio as well as in print, and it's not inconsistent with insisting on high standards of accuracy and honesty in ad claims.
When ad industry officials visit Congress this year to again question these FDA policies, we hope lawmakers demand action.
With the creative and always controversial anti- smoking advertising that
emanates out of several states, including the paid ads in California and Massachusetts financed by taxes, it's somewhat surprising to note that there are currently no such campaigns on a national basis. One federal agency, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, just had too much trouble getting its ads placed,
it seems, and quit trying several years ago.
This presents the ad industry the opportunity to contribute something of great potential value-the national public service campaign on tobacco that ad association leaders have asked the Advertising Council to undertake. It will not silence those who want direct action against tobacco ads, but it will allow the advertising and media industries to do something about the tobacco issue without becoming paralyzed by fears of compromising somebody's First Amendment rights.
Finding a client for the effort is the Ad Council's first step. Finding a creative approach that works with today's youngsters is the bigger challenge, followed by lining up the substantial media commitments that will be needed to make an impact.
Whatever emerges will be criticized and belittled in some quarters; even some ad people will find it a poor substitute for using industry self-regulation to win tobacco marketer cooperation with new, voluntary child-protection marketing guidelines. But it's something that can be done-now-and we hope the media and advertising's best and brightest young creatives jump at the chance.