EthicAd's task

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Can direct-to-consumer drug advertising be all things to all people? Can pharmaceuticals marketers and advertising agencies get their message across effectively, while satisfying the concerns of federal regulators and physicians, and providing valuable information that empowers consumers?

An Atlanta-based group of medical academics says the answer is yes. And they contend the non-profit organization they've formed is just the one to see to it that everyone's interest is served.

The organization, the EthicAd Council, has set itself a formidable task: mediating between drug companies, ad shops and regulators, while protecting consumers from misleading or downright wrong information. According to its executive director, Michael Shaw, "DTC [advertising] is a privilege, not a right." And, apparently, the council wants to make sure the privilege is not abused. Their solution: guidelines that ads must meet to receive an "EthicAd Seal of Approval."

Keeping a wary eye on DTC advertising isn't such a bad thing. And there's certainly no shortage of it. Broadcast DTC advertising has exploded since the U.S. Food & Drug Administration loosened its regulatory grip. Spending on direct-to-consumer TV spots last year more than quintupled over spending in 1996. But if the EthicAd Council is to deliver on its promise, it needs to be very clear about two things: its guidelines for marketers and its guidelines for itself.

Coming up with standards that drug companies fighting for market share voluntarily submit to will be tough. Similarly, if EthicAd's seal is to have legitimacy, then the council needs to demonstrate that it is an independent judge -- even though it is willing to accept funds from ad agencies and drug marketers.

This summer, the council plans to map out its own rules for contributions. A draft of ad standards for marketers is expected in the fall. Neither one will be an easy prescription to write.

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