Ad Council balks at FCC's 'nutty' PSA ruling

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The Ad Council plans to ask Congress to overrule a new Federal Communications Commission ruling, which could force $60 million of public service ads to be yanked, according to the council's livid leadership.

The FCC ruling, which looks sure to spark a major feud, states that public service ads run to meet the matching ad requirements of White House anti-drug campaign media buys must be tagged as "from the government."

Calling the decision "nutty" and in conflict with legislation creating the anti-drug program run by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Ad Council President-CEO Peggy Conlon argued that the tag would confuse viewers and undermine the messages of the organizations that participate in the matching ads.

Ms. Conlon said 24 groups, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America, the National Mentoring Partnership and even the U.S. Department of Transportation, could pull out of the ad rotation if tagging were required. "I can't believe they would take away one of the most important tools that we have in helping keep children off drugs," she said.

Alan Levitt, who heads the media program for the White House drug office, agreed the ruling could have serious effects. "It threatens the public-service play of messages that relate to the drug issue."

A public-interest law firm and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws went further, praising the FCC decision, which it said merely enforced its requirements that viewers deserve to know who pays for any messages they see.

"We feel strongly this is right," said Andy Schwartzman, director of the Media Access Project, the public-interest law firm. "This underscores the importance of the legal requirement that people should know who is trying to persuade them."

unique facet

The dispute stems from a unique facet of the drug office youth anti-drug campaign: The drug office pays media companies $150 million a year to run anti-drug ads and media companies provide a free ad for each paid ad. The drug office was concerned its broadcast messages would drown out public-service messages, so it agreed to use public service ads from other groups on drug-related topics to fulfill part of the broadcast match.

Those public service ads-many from the Ad Council itself, but also from other groups and in some cases the broadcast networks on topics ranging from alcohol abuse to mentoring to use of specific drugs-air without any mention that they come as a result of the drug office spending.

The lack of identification became an issue after the FCC, in a related complaint brought by NORML, ruled in December 2000 that any programming supported by the drug office money had to be identified as coming from the drug office.

not fair

When several networks warned the Ad Council that its PSA's were going to have to carry tags, the Ad Council asked the FCC to exempt the ads or rule the disclaimers weren't necessary and warned that any other decision could have significant consequences. The Ad Council contended that a tag of "sponsored by the Office of National Drug Control Policy" wouldn't be fair since the drug office didn't produce or craft the messages, and would make public service ads less effective.

The FCC rejected that argument last week, saying that its rules require identifications and also that while the drug office doesn't craft the message it chooses which spots are eligible and has "influence over critical aspects of the matching program."

The ruling, announced Nov. 8, was being reviewed last week by the major networks and none would offer comment. It wasn't clear how prominent the disclosures of drug office sponsorship would have to be and whether the groups would follow through on their threats to pull ads from the rotation. The Partnership for Drug-Free America, which produces the drug office's own paid ads as well as a few public service ads, said its ads wouldn't be affected.

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