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It warms me to the marrow of my bones that cigarette companies are such stalwart protectors of the right to advertise, and that advertising trade associations vociferously defend them.

But that position on the part of the ad industry puts advertising between a rock and a hard place.

After all, if cigarette companies have an unqualified right to free speech, as they assert, then the media have an equally unqualified right to decline to carry that free speech. If not, the media become nothing more than common carriers, required to print or broadcast any material that is foisted upon them.

Knight-Ridder brought this issue into focus the other week when the newspaper company announced it was banning certain types of cigarette ads from its pages, such as ads depicting cartoonlike characters and using slogans like "Alive with pleasure."

It will be interesting to see whether ad trade associations will now demand that Knight-Ridder and other media companies run whatever ads cigarette companies give them.

And also whether they condone Philip Morris' heavy-handed threat to cancel advertising from its beer and food divisions to punish any publication that dares to question the suitability of its cigarette ads.

What colossal arrogance. "We will not under any circumstances allow publishers to dictate the content of our ads," said the manager of media affairs for Philip Morris.

There's no question cigarette companies are full of themselves, as they get one opponent after the other to back off. Philip Morris forced an apology out of ABC-TV, and CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" withdrew a segment on Brown & Williamson after lawyers threatened to sue.

I've said it once and I'll say it again: The cigarette companies' fight is not the ad industry's fight. The industry should let cigarette companies swing in the wind as they become more strident and demanding.

The cigarette companies put the fear of God into other marketers by warning: "You could be next!" This is a straw man. Name one other legal product that good, solid research shows has the tendency to kill people. Even alcohol, in moderation, supposedly can be beneficial.

To put all of this into perspective, my old boss Stan Cohen wrote in these pages 25 years ago: "The battle over cigarettes has hampered the efforts of business and advertising to cope with more serious problems. At a time when leaders of the business community have sensed the need to respond to consumerism by re-evaluating business' obligations to respect public interest, the all-out defense of cigarette ads presented business and advertising in the worst possible light."

How much longer is the advertising community going to cheapen its good name by linking its destiny to the cigarette forces? With friends like them, who needs enemies?

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