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The national advertising community must face the question of what happens next with the self-regulation program that is one of its proudest accomplishments. What the program needs is the vision and energy an active, full-time president can supply. Without it, the industry settles for a useful but little-known service lacking influence to affect critical issues (such as how online media will be made attractive and safe for advertisers and consumers).

This until-now quiet debate about the future of the National Advertising Review Council and its national ad self-regulation units has come front and center with the departure of NARC President Wally O'Brien. His appointment in 1995 was engineered by the American Advertising Federation, American Association of Advertising Agencies and Association of National Advertisers as a first step toward installing vigorous ad industry leadership at NARC. The plan was to raise NARC's visibility and standing in the industry, with the public and with federal and state lawmakers (and, just as important, attract new funding).

That initiative is now at a dead end. The Council of Better Business Bureaus, whose National Advertising Division, Children's Advertising Review Unit and National Advertising Review Board are the guts of NARC system, asserts it cannot fund the NARC president's job.

The NARC system is a fantastic bargain. About $1.5 million in CBBB funds are allocated to run it in 1999 (excluding the costs of an NARC president, which could be $300,000 or more a year for salary, travel and other costs. The $1.5 million comes from CBBB dues paid by national corporate members (top national advertisers and some advertising agencies).

The money dilemma is straining relations between CBBB and the ad groups, though all say they are committed to building a more influential NARC program. Whether top executives at advertisers, ad agencies and media share that vision is the real question. Their willingness to invest -- now -- in NARC's future will be the answer. And, after years of a boom economy, pleas of corporate poverty will be hypocritical. If the industry won't build a better NARC, who will? If not