How the Ad Industry Stayed Ahead of the Feds and Nader's Raiders

After Certain Excesses of the Mad Men Days, the Time Was Right for Self-regulation

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Rance Crain
Rance Crain
Back in the Mad Men days, when the "pioneers of advertising," as my old boss Stan Cohen calls them, ruled the roost, it was commonly held that a little exaggeration was not unreasonable to accentuate the selling points of the ad messages.

Colgate's Rapid Shave, for example, demonstrated in TV commercials that its lather could shave through sandpaper: "To prove Rapid Shave's super-moisturizing power, we put it right from the can onto this tough, dry sandpaper. It was apply ... soak ... and off in a stroke!"

Never mind that it took 80 minutes of soaking to penetrate the sandpaper or that the sandpaper wasn't even sandpaper; it was really Plexiglas made to look like sandpaper.

Campbell's Soup was called on the carpet for putting marbles in the soup bowl to better show off its ingredients in TV commercials. And Listerine was forced to run corrective advertising to admit that the mouthwash couldn't cure colds or sore throats.

It was a fertile field for Ralph Nader. He was the scourge of not only the auto industry with his book "Unsafe at Any Speed" but the advertising industry, with his petition to the Federal Trade Commission that advertisers should have proof of their claims.

That might seem elementary now, but prior to Nader's Raiders, as his troops were called, the burden of proof was on the FTC to show that an ad claim was false and misleading. FTC lawyers had to call expert witnesses and scientists to try to prove their case. After the Nader petition, the FTC's job was made much less cumbersome, and the commission got very aggressive in pursuing fraudulent advertising. Wally Snyder, who was a lawyer at the FTC at the time, later became president of the American Advertising Federation, and is now executive director of the Institute for Advertising Ethics, told me that the number of lawyers dedicated to ad cases almost tripled from 12 to 30.

The shift in burden of proof also paved the way for the ad industry's self-regulatory mechanism, the National Advertising Review Council. The industry could never have afforded to handle ad cases if it had to prove a claim was false. But under the new rules, the ad review board would simply ask for substantiation.

Both Stan Cohen, our longtime Washington editor, and Howard Bell, who founded the NARC, agreed that it was not enough for the advertising industry to fight government intrusion. It also should admit that there were valid issues concerning gimmicky and misleading ads that advertisers had to confront.

At the same time, Stan said a new generation of ad leaders were coming to the conclusion that "they didn't want to go back to the jungle. They didn't want to spend their lives fighting with the government. That's not what they're in business for."

So the time was right for self-regulation. Before becoming president of the newly merged Advertising Federation of America and the Advertising Association of the West, Howard headed the National Association of Broadcasters' Code Authority, the self-regulatory body for broadcasting. When the two ad groups merged in 1968, Howard said, they had "no money and no major industry support." The first thing he did was to move the headquarters from New York to Washington to better deal with the government's growing involvement in advertising.

Howard told me that establishing the ad review board in 1971 with the 4A's, the Association of National Advertisers, and the Council of Better Business Bureaus was not exactly a slam dunk. Major companies at the time didn't want to make the decisions public or turn advertisers that didn't comply over to the FTC because they "didn't want to rock the boat or admit that we had a problem or hold members up to public ridicule," Howard said. But he worked with Stan to build favorable momentum for self-regulation, and we printed some of the cases to show the process was for real.

Those were troubling times for advertising. After President Kennedy, in a speech in Ohio, first used the words "consumer protection" and followed up by naming Esther Peterson as the first consumer adviser to the White House, consumer protection took off as a government activity in the following decade. So there was a lot of hostility.

"If there hadn't of been a firestorm against the industry, ad people would have said we don't need it, and some did anyway. But Stan's writing contributed a lot to building support," recalled Howard, who still has his hand in the game after all these years as the current chairman of National Advertising Review Board.

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