At the recent Four A's meeting, J. Walter Thompson Co.'s Burt Manning called attention to the Yankelovich Monitor survey showing 63% of respondents wanted government to regulate "truth in advertising," up from 52% three years ago.
Burt said he was amazed and tried to figure out what could have caused it. Everything else, he said, had stayed the same the last three years except for an explosion in "dirty tricks" political ads.
So Burt made the rather big leap of blaming political ads for people's increasing distrust of advertising, ahead of such problem areas as violence on television, toxic waste and auto safety. Since most political advertising is done by consultants, Burt let ad agencies off the hook.
Other industry groups were quick to jump on the anti-political advertising bandwagon. The Four A's and American Advertising Federation want local media to scrutinize ad claims of politicians. Mr. Manning wants the Federal Trade Commission to see if there are ways to pressure political consultants to adopt a voluntary code of self-regulation.
But what if all this fevered activity is misplaced? What if mainstream advertising is the real culprit behind consumer distrust? The industry isn't bothering to consider the possibility.
One person in the Four A's meeting audience thought that ads for "potentially abusive substances" might be a bigger offender than political ads, but Burt said that cigarette advertising "makes no claims" about the product, whereas with political ads you can't tell the lies from the truth.
Mr. Manning and other industry leaders might consider one thing that has changed in the last several years is increasing evidence that cigarette companies have tampered with nicotine levels, blatantly directed appeals to the young and generally misled the public. Yet their ads continue to show people with a cigarette in their hand in a state of near-euphoria. Wouldn't that juxtaposition make people cry out for greater regulation of "truth in advertising"?
The Tylenol-Advil fight is not helping matters. The analgesic makers certainly do make a claim-that their products are safe and effective. But Johnson & Johnson and American Home Products have been challenging the safety of each other's ingredients, and the truthfulness of each other's ads. Could those sort of battles contribute to the public's concerns about advertising?
I also have the feeling that when people talk about "truth in advertising," they're referring to ads that offends their sensibilities. I'd nominate Calvin Klein's raunchy jeans ads and others of that ilk for causing people to be downright embarrassed. Do advertisers and their agencies have the right to do almost anything to get attention?
What concerns me is that the industry seems intent on going after the bogey man of political advertising and ignoring the possibility that there might be other underlying causes.