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The idea that a generous dose of free TV advertising for federal candidates-for starters, say about $500 million for each two-year election cycle-will curb tawdry political fund-raising tactics is by itself a long shot. We were skeptics a year ago when the idea first started getting visibility, and we're unconvinced today.

The ins and outs of political campaign finance are not our domain; advertising and marketing are, and it's abundantly clear that media advertising has become the

critical path for reaching the electorate. That's not likely to change. Nor is the politician's appetite to use as much of it as he or she can afford.

Without curbs on allowable candidate spending-limits the U.S. Supreme Court has said government cannot impose without violating the First Amendment-candidates for Congress and the White House and the political parties will buy as much advertising as their fund-raising prowess permits.

There are limits-voluntarily accepted in exchange for taxpayer-supplied campaign funds-on what presidential candidates spend in general elections; but ad spending in the primaries is uncontrolled, as it is for primary and general election races for Congress. Last time, President Clinton's fund-raising prowess let him launch his ads nearly a year before Election Day, and months before any federal limits applied.

TV stations, to be sure, are invitingly plump targets for campaign reformers. Owners fought off bids to make them pay billions in auctions for new channels for broadcasting digital TV, and it's not unreasonable to seek a quantifiable public service payback for getting these channels "free." Certainly one part of that equation might be making free time available to candidates when voters are most likely to want and need information. Some networks did so in the 1996 presidential campaign.

But before TV stations and networks agree to turn over sizable blocks of commercial inventory, with who knows what effect on ordinary advertisers and PSAs that also depend on the medium, they and the ad community have a right to insist Washington politicians show this is not a charade.

The first, essential step in gaining media and ad industry support is for politicians to agree on overall campaign spending limits.

Plain talk

To its great credit, Tambrands, beset by price competition and share pressure in the U.S. and cultural taboos overseas, has ventured beyond the accepted norms in tampon advertising.

In its $60 million global ad blitz that started last week, its Tampax brand speaks bluntly, addressing the questions women have about heretofore unmentionables in the world of tampon advertising, including such basics as whether the product can be

overnite and if virgins should use them. This in a category where advertisers commonly skirt the real issues and instead paint a dull canvas of women dressed in white, invariably straddling something like a horse or a bike, talking almost in code about the actual product and its use.

The numbing blandness of those messages has caused consumers to tune out, leaving brands in the $662 million market vulnerable to a less-than-loyal target audience as well as competition from other product forms. Though it's too early to assess the effectiveness of Tambrands' bold gambit, advertisers in other categories where products are hard to differentiate, and where ad messages have dodged consumer concerns, should pay heed.

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