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It's ironic that on the 25th anniversary of the advertising industry's highly successful and highly acclaimed venture in self-regulation, the concept seems to be out of favor in certain segments of the business.

It's appalling to me that Seagram's is flouting the liquor industry agreement not to advertise its wares on television. All I can think of is that Edgar Bronfman wants to give President Clinton a hot issue, just as the cigarette companies have done.

And it's equally appalling-although not surprising-that the American Association of Advertising Agencies has decided not to pursue a voluntary code on tobacco advertising. The industry probably doesn't want to weaken its case against Food &*Drug Administration restrictions on cigarette promotions, but I say self-regulation would strengthen its hand.

The ad industry, I fear, is prepared to fall on its sword defending the First Amendment and the right of legal products to advertise anywhere they damn well please. As Hal Shoup, Four A's exec VP, says: "The issue is not about tobacco; it is about advertising of a legal product."

That distinction-separating tobacco and all the health issues surrounding it from the marketing practices of the product-will be lost on most of the public, and it will be easy for politicians in search of an easy issue to say that the advertising industry supports exploiting the vulnerability of children.

The beauty of self-regulation is that it eliminates those sticky First Amendment issues. The ad industry can argue until it's blue in the face that it's not in favor of exploiting kids, but it just doesn't want the government to forbid advertisers from doing it.

But if the industry itself were to agree to common-sense restrictions on cigarette promotions, such as not placing ads near schools or playgrounds, or eliminating outdoor boards at certain sporting events, that voluntary agreement would carry a lot of credibility both with the public and with the government.

Such an agreement to stay off television has worked well to diffuse the public criticism of the liquor industry. That Seagram would be willing to risk the wrath of legislators shows how far sales have deteriorated.

Looked at a little more cynically, the move also shows that Seagram has little downside risk. The worst thing that could happen is that the liquor companies would be legislated off the airwaves, which is not much different than the situation now. If they're lucky, beer and wine products-the liquor companies' chief competitors-would be included in the ban.

In fact, getting beer and wine off TV might be the real reason Seagram went on the air.

But whatever its motives, Seagram's TV blitz is sure to create a new set of problems for the advertising industry, similar to the dilemma it faces with cigarettes. The industry will be forced to defend the liquor companies' First Amendment rights to freely advertise a legal product. And just as with cigarette companies, advertising will be seen as a callous and cynical force, available for hire to all comers.

The ad industry earnestly believes that if it doesn't defend free speech of cigarette companies-and maybe now liquor companies-the rights of other legal products will be restricted, in a "slippery slope" of anti-advertising legislation.

That's why it's crucial to establish, and adhere to, voluntary self-regulatory programs-so advertising doesn't find itself defending the indefensible.

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