Marketing, media execs must find spines, fix trust problem

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To improve its public image, the advertising industry paraded Tony the Tiger, Mr. Clean and the Pillsbury Doughboy through the streets of Manhattan last fall.

This year, it might consider a parade of marketing executives doing the perp walk-heads down, hands behind their backs.

OK, so it's not likely we'll see an advertising heavyweight bunking next to Martha any time soon. But lately there's a disturbingly frequent (and seemingly endless) drip-drip of stories detailing unethical, scandalous and questionable behavior on the part of media and marketing companies. And it's drawing unwelcome attention from noisy consumer advocates, dreaded regulators and the courts.

Consider just these events, all piled within days of each other:

--It was revealed that the Education Department, working through PR agency Ketchum, paid the commentator Armstrong Williams a couple of hundred grand to talk up George W.'s "No Child Left Behind" law in his syndicated column and TV appearances.

--Congress' investigative arm "scolded the Bush administration," in the words of the Washington Post, "for distributing phony prepackaged news reports" on anti-drug efforts that mimicked traditional news broadcasts and were anchored by a former journalist.

--The FDA warned Pfizer that its ads for Celebrex and another pain reliever did not disclose side effects and made "unsubstantiated effectiveness claims."

--A federal judge separately ruled that ads for Pfizer's Listerine brand equating gargling with flossing were "false and misleading." Pfizer pulled the JWT-created ads and sent a field force out to slap stickers over the claim on its bottles.

--CBS fired four producers for their roles in the controversial "60 Minutes" report on the president's service in the National Guard. Viacom's Leslie Moonves said the "American public has a right to count on CBS News for fairness and accuracy in all that it does."

--In the latest in a series of troubling revelations that began during its contentious court battle with Rosie O'Donnell, Gruner & Jahr revealed that it incorrectly identified 165,000 subscriptions across its magazine stable as paid, and that almost all of its titles could miss guaranteed rate bases for 2004.

Seriously, people, there's a problem here.

With each violation of trust, advertisers and the media are rapidly losing whatever credibility they have left. At this rate, it won't take long for them to completely burn their bridges to consumers. People will just assume they're being lied to, and a good part of the time they may be right.

Empowered consumers, are no longer as reliant on media reports and ad claims for their information. They're already skeptical of even formerly untouchable news brands such as "60 Minutes" and The New York Times, and the Internet gives them easy access to peer reviews and insights, and independent data sources.

What's the ad industry to do? Certainly, it can't turn to its image specialists; PR agencies are spinning out of control alongside ad agencies, marketers and content providers, as the VNR and Armstrong Williams scandals show. The only real solution: Cut the crap, and deal honestly and transparently with consumers. They're not morons (not even in the red states).

Courage would also be nice. In almost all of these cases, you can bet someone somewhere along the line knew that whatever was being planned wasn't a good idea, but they didn't stand up and say something. Marketing and media executives need to stop protecting their own backsides and muster the guts to call a bad idea a bad idea-before a judge or government official does it for them.

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