Former Ad Age Washington Editor Stan Cohen Dies

Crusading Journalist During Consumer-Protection Era Was Champion of Advertising Self-Regulation

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Stanley E. Cohen
Stanley E. Cohen

My old boss, Stanley E. Cohen, Washington editor of Advertising Age for 42 years before retiring in 1987, died May 6 of renal failure. He was 93.

Stan joined Ad Age from Broadcasting Magazine in 1943, when Bureau Chief John Crichton (and later Ad Age editor) left to join the Navy. A recent graduate of Cornell and Columbia universities, the job interview he had for the Washington opening was the last he would ever have.

"Even though it was 30 years ago, I still vividly remember sitting aside Stan as he edited some of my first copy for Advertising Age with his rapid-fire, two-index-finger, hunt-and-peck-style typing on the keyboard," said David Snyder, now publisher at Crain's Chicago Business, who was hired by Stan in the D.C. bureau of Ad Age one week after his college graduation. "He took raw copy -- very raw -- and made it sing."

When Stan joined us in the '40s in Washington, it took a lot of doing to communicate with our home base in Chicago. Stan told Bob Goldsborough, who wrote a history of our company called "The Crain Adventure," that "most of our communications were by Western Union telegram. It was difficult -- and expensive -- in those days to make long-distance calls. Plus there were war priorities on the use of the phone lines. When I didn't use Western Union, I mailed stories that were typed on the back of Western Union sheets. I didn't like the letterhead at the top, so I used the backs. I was such a tightwad that I never bought any paper."

"Stan, the journalist, served his Advertising Age readers as all journalists and columnists would hope to: He informed them, alerted them, challenged them and sometimes infuriated them. He led them through the tidal waves of change that swept advertising and marketing over more than four decades," said Rick Gordon, who worked with and for Mr. Cohen for 10 years in the Advertising Age Washington Bureau before joining the paper's editorial-management team in Chicago. "Stan, the teacher, taught journalism in the office every day."

But not only was Stan legendary within Ad Age, his influence extended far beyond it. "Stan was one of the most successful speakers-committee chairmen in the history of the National Press Club," said Vivian Vahlberg, former Press Club president. "Whether he was hosting Indian President Indira Gandhi, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Netherlands' Queen Beatrix or the many other luminaries he brought to speak at the club, Stan always knew how to engage them in fascinating conversation."

Stan's most lasting influence during his career was during the consumer-protection era, when he pushed advertisers to curb their promotional excesses. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Washington chapter of the Professional Journalists and received the silver medal in the National Media Awards of the National Consumer Federation of America.

As Sid Bernstein, longtime publisher of Ad Age and president of Crain Communications, said when Stan retired: "The first award is one that might be expected, but the latter -- an award from the Consumer Federation of America to a writer from an advertising publication! Unusual, to say the least, and a remarkable tribute to the quality of Stan's reporting and analysis of consumer issues."

Larry Doherty, former deputy editor of this publication, noted that "Stan was a tremendous asset to Ad Age, not only for his many decades of coverage of Washington, but for his influence on those he worked with. His integrity was a model for us all."

Stan was my first boss in 1960 when I was fresh out of college, and my best boss. He ingrained in me that what's best for consumers is best for advertisers, and that continues to be our editorial position.

In his well-read column, "This Week in Washington," Stan warned that the excessive claims of advertisers back in the '60s would result in tough and restrictive legislation, and he continually urged advertisers to clean up their act.

Indeed, after President John F. Kennedy, in a speech in Ohio, first used the words "consumer protection" and followed up by naming Ester Peterson as the first consumer adviser to the White House, consumer protection took off as government mandate.

Stan early on was a champion of self-regulation and worked with Howard Bell, founder of the National Advertising Review Council, to make self-regulation happen. But it wasn't easy: The advertisers of the day didn't want to admit they were wrong, and many fought the concept strenuously.

Howard said that Stan Cohen was "the most knowledgeable and influential reporter on advertising issues at a time of major criticism by government and consumer groups. He was an objective observer of the criticism and at times agreed with it. Despite any differences, we always respected each other's views, and his support was invaluable during our planning for self-regulation. I shall miss Stan Cohen and the integrity he represented."

During the consumer-protection years, advertisers were on the defensive, and ad people were in Ralph Nader's crosshairs, Stan said, "because they defended a culture that assumed unsubstantiated claims and tricky production gimmicks were legitimate sales tools."

During Stan's tenure in 1973, R.J. Reynolds blasted an Ad Age editorial that called the company out for advertising its Winchester Little Cigars on TV after the industry voluntarily stopped running cigarette ads in the medium. RJR later pulled the ads.

Sometimes our own advertisers didn't take kindly to Stan's progressive views. Only five years into his career with us, our biggest advertiser canceled over something Stan wrote. Stan said he didn't learn about the cancellation until after the advertiser returned a year later. My father, G.D. Crain Jr., the founder of Ad Age, told our editor (who eventually told Stan): "Don't mention this to Stan. It might inhibit him."

Stan's final byline column for us ran in March 2005 in our "75 Years of Ideas" issue. He wrote: "I know none among my peers who had better reason to feel their years in journalism were well-spent. And that included the satisfaction of knowing that I had fulfilled the hopes of my employers by enabling them to do well by doing good."

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