VIEWPOINT;A WELCOME DECISION;P&G PLOT?

Published on .

The U.S. supreme court's demolition of Rhode Island's 40-year old ban on retail liquor price advertising, censorship clothed as "promoting temperance," was inevitable. Any other outcome, for those who support First Amendment protection for truthful advertising, was too ominous to contemplate.

Yet the court's opinion also delivered additional bonuses:

A clear warning the justices intend to subject future government ad bans to tighter judicial scrutiny;

A declaration that government has the burden of justifying an ad ban with facts, not conjecture under the guise of "legislative judgment."

In many ways, this opinion is a welcome return to the clarity of principle the court established 20 years ago this month in its landmark Virginia Pharmacy Board ruling. That opinion first declared truthful commercial speech was protected by the First Amendment-and started a process that toppled numerous ad bans then existing around the nation.

To be sure, the many separate opinions attached to this ruling show the justices are divided on just how far the court should go in curbing future bans on truthful ads. And there seems to be room for well-meaning people on both sides of the issue to continue their debate about what constitutes "truth" in image ads for cigarettes or beer when children are involved. But, we hope, this Rhode Island decision shows the future direction of the court will be unmistakably toward more protection from censorship for honest ads-no matter how unpopular the product.

Next time procter & Gamble Co. tests a new marketing program, pick a state where the attorney general has taken Marketing 101. Unfortunately, P&G is testing coupon-less marketing in upstate New York.

The "zero coupon" test is to determine if P&G might more efficiently market its products without cents-off coupons, helping to keep the lid on costs and, thus, prices.

But New York Attorney General Dennis Vacco sees this as some sort of conspiracy to deprive consumers of their coupons, and has issued subpoenas to P&G, a number of retailers and several other package-goods marketers, reportedly including Kimberly-Clark Corp. and Clorox Co. He says he's worried about antitrust violations.

Critics often blast advertising as adding to product costs, but Attorney General Vacco seems to feel coupons are something other than a similar part of the marketing mix-a gift, or even an entitlement. But couponing has a significant cost. And grocery product marketers, in particular, are exploring ways to cut costs.

Each marketer has to decide what marketing investments are worth it. P&G has changed tactics to enhance its "everyday low price" strategy-a benefit to consumers-and this latest experiment should not be jeopardized by someone posing as the consumer's friend who apparently doesn't understand basic marketing principles.

In this article:
Most Popular