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The marketers of Tylenol and Advil are testing the maxim that everyone benefits from a good fight for the purchaser's dollar. By making safety the issue in their current battle for pain-reliever sales, and letting it escalate to higher and higher levels of intensity, the people who need pain relief today are the executives at Johnson & Johnson and American Home Products.

It's not that drug ads should never, ever touch on safety. But advertising's penchant for dramatizing differences between products can make comparative ads a poor tool for discussing it.

Though OTC drug labels routinely carry warnings, until now most ads dismissed their presence with a curt "use only as directed" admonition. That made the Tylenol and Advil ads, which plucked warnings from the label and made them their focal points, that much more alarming to consumers and more vexing for ad watchdogs at the broadcast networks. Fearful the ads overplayed the risks involved, ABC barred them all while the other nets turned back the harshest spots.

J&J and AHP need an exit strategy before more damage is done. The present ads could provide ammunition to hostile drug regulators who feel drug marketers cannot be trusted to responsibly present their OTC products. They might also complicate efforts to lighten government controls over prescription product ads directed to consumers, where there are far more safety issues that marketers might try to exploit.

J&J and AHP should turn their fist-fight over comparative safety into a positive effort to get consumers to read and understand all instructions and warnings about safe use of their products.

The feud between Advil and Tylenol has also put a spotlight on ad industry self-regulation efforts. When the brakes were applied to these two campaigns, it was the four major broadcast networks that took action-after Johnson & Johnson complained about rival Advil's ad tactics. Not an easy call, but at least the nets considered the fact the ads could be misinterpreted by consumers.

Any signs that media companies are willing to make tough decisions about accepting the ads that come their way should be good news for the hard-pressed Federal Trade Commission, providing, as FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky cautioned, there are no media-imoposed barriers to honest comparative ads.

FTC has otherwise been encouraging more media scrutiny of dubious ads. At last month's government affairs conference, put on by the American Advertising Federation, Chairman Pitofksy urged greater voluntary efforts to review advertising. With limited resources, FTC is hard-pressed to monitor the burgeoning cable TV industry, not to mention the vast Internet and its advertisers.

We're encouraged by word that the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau has formed a task force to set up voluntary screening procedures and ad guidelines. FTC says most of the advertising that has required federal action in recent years has started out on independent TV stations or on cable.

A few years ago the major networks cut back personnel and budgets for ad screening, yet they apparently are still willing to challenge advertisers and enforce standards. If pared-back broadcast networks can still do it, the cost of pre-screening should not be a deterrent to other media companies willing to sift the phoney and tasteless from their advertising mix. The benefit is public confidence, as well as the confidence-and dollars-of legitimate advertisers.

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