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With the wary consent of the advertising business, Congress has now OK'd a plan that lets the Federal Trade Commission police advertising for "unfairness."

The compromise writes into federal law definitions and limitations that have to be met before FTC finds an ad practice unfair. For that reason, we have supported the basics of this deal, first worked out by the American Advertising Federation and later supported by the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers.

No such Congressional standards existed in the late 1970s, leaving the commission free to put its own interpretation on what is unfair in commercial speech. When FTC stunned advertisers, and amazed Congress, by suggesting it could ban all TV advertising directed to children on fairness grounds, it triggered an uproar that nearly shut the commission down.

That must never happen again.

This compromise is no mandate for experimenting on the legal frontiers of advertising regulation. It is just the opposite: A declaration from Congress to FTC and the courts that fairness is a standard to be used only in limited and carefully defined circumstances.

Effective FTC regulation of deceptive advertising enjoys broad support from public officials and national advertisers; outlawing, as unfair commercial speech, ads that are unpopular does not.

Tomorrow's job for Congress, ad industry leaders and FTC members is to keep the commission's ad focus squarely where it belongs: on deception.

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