That was the resounding message heard at a meeting of the Interamerican Society for the Freedom of Commercial Speech (SILEC) in Mexico City last month. The society, representing 14 countries in Latin America and Spain, urges self-regulation as the best way of upholding "freedom of expression in advertising."
MODELED ON EUROPEAN PROGRAMS
SILEC, which was founded in Caracas in 1992, is modeling its self-regulation efforts on those that have been implemented successfully by 23 European countries.
For example, Paraguay's 4-year-old Cerneco, which roughly translates to Center for Regulations and Norms for Communications Research, is an interim ad self-regulation organization that has successfully held off Paraguayan government intervention in advertising.
PEACEMAKERS IN `BEER WAR'
The watchdog group-composed of agency, advertiser and media representatives-intervened in Paraguay's ferocious "beer wars" last year, in which Labatt Blue (Canadian), Ohlssons (South African) and other top beer brands battled in a promotions "nightmare," according to Daniel Nasta, president of the Publicitaria Nasta agency and a Cerneco board member.
"There was even handing out free beer samples to minors.... It [the campaigns] got so extreme we even got a call from the president asking for our help," he added.
Paraguay's self-regulators united the warring factions together in an informal agreement to cut unethical advertising practices.
POSITIVE GOVERNMENT ATTITUDES
The Paraguayan government's open attitude toward self-regulation is the rule, not the exception, in a region where no country actively opposes help from industry watchdog groups, says SILEC President Jose Miguel Gonzalez Llorente.
In keeping with privatization and integration trends in the region, governments are anxious to encourage the private sector and to simplify regulations-a huge advantage to multinational advertisers grappling with a variety of national laws, Mr. Gonzalez says.
At the Mexico City event, Mexico's undersecretary for health, Dr. Rafael Camacho Solis, said Mexico's interim watchdog group could take over its tasks on a formal basis if it proves to be effective within a year. But despite such assurances, Mexican legislators for the first time are considering a new advertising law.
Ad industry watchdog bodies, comprising advertisers, agencies and the media, have been created in other Latin America countries over the last decade, and part of SILEC's job is to promote their work and encourage the formation of new self-regulation efforts. Some programs are just getting started (Paraguay, Mexico and Puerto Rico), and some need media support (Argentina, Venezuela and Costa Rica); others are well-established (Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and El Salvador).
SUCCESS IN CHILE
Self-regulation is used to resolve 99% of all conflicts in Chile, and the system works similarly well in Brazil, according to Mr. Gonzalez. The reason, he said, is that industry insiders "are the experts ... When you put control in government hands, there are a lot of risks and possible injustices."
Because self-regulators always seek an amicable solution and have no legal authority to compel advertisers to make changes, the ultimate sanction lies in the media taking the "offending" advertisement off the air or out of print.
Advertising censorship by public health departments in some Latin American countries causes concern in the industry. Chilean advertisers, for example, want to see "pre-censorship" abolished in pharmaceutical products and cosmetics. Health officials approve ad campaigns in a lottery-style system open to abuse and corruption, claims Patricio Bellolio Rodriguez, president of Chile's advertisers' association. "One day you present an ad and it's rejected; the next [day] a different bureaucrat approves it."
OK TO SELL; OK TO ADVERTISE
Eugenio Velasco, president of Grey Mexico and the Mexican Association of Advertising Agencies (AMAP), shares Mr. Bellolio's concern: "If [a product] is authorized to be sold, it should be immediately authorized for advertising." Ads for many products, particularly alcohol and tobacco, have to be cleared by the health ministry.
Mr. Velasco recalls how one scene in a Grey cigarette ad was scrapped because it showed a model water skiing. Mr. Velasco explained ruefully that health ministry rules ban the use of any "officially recognized sport" in tobacco-related ads.
Though the battles are far from over, SILEC is optimistic Latin America will embrace self-regulation as successfully as its European counterparts have. Since 1992, the European Advertising Standards Alliance has helped set up self-regulatory bodies in nearly two dozen countries, including several in Eastern Europe.
The European Advertising Standards Alliance has three objectives: To promote and support self-regulation in Europe; to coordinate cross-border complaints; and to provide and disseminate information about legislative developments to the region's advertising-related companies and the media.
Contributing: Juliana Koranteng, London.