Match game over PSAs

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Two groups are urging the Federal Communications Commission to require that TV stations and networks running public service anti-drug announcements include a disclaimer that the ads are "sponsored" by the White House Office of National Drug Policy.

The fight over PSAs stems from the unusual nature of the drug office's advertising program, in which media companies are required to provide a free ad or like value for every one bought. In asking broadcasters to provide a free ad, the drug office produces a reel of qualifying public service announcements each quarter loosely connected to anti-drug issues. Many of those spots are those produced for Ad Council campaigns, and run as matching ads without any mention of the drug office connection.

The Media Access Project and the foundation of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws both have filed papers with the FCC suggesting the commission reject an Advertising Council request to be exempt from running the White House sponsorship message.

"The law is crystal clear: program content carried in exchange for direct or indirect payment and subject to the approval of any sponsor must be identified as `paid for and by whom,"' the Media Access Project wrote the FCC. "The Ad Council is seeking a ruling which would permit value-laden messages to be carried on television stations without indication that they were purchased with funds appropriated by Congress and that their content was approved by an agency of the federal government."

The NORML Foundation in its filing claimed the Ad Council benefits from "an intimate, symbiotic relationship" with the White House drug office.

In March, the Ad Council petitioned the FCC asking either for a determination that the disclaimers aren't needed or a waiver from their use. The Ad Council said mentioning that the ads were sponsored by the White House drug office would be jarring and interfere with the ads' message. The council also argued the ads could create confusion as to whether the organizations supported are federally funded and may bring up union issues with actors who are compensated differently for public service announcements. It also warned that some groups whose spots are loosely related to the drug office's aims that benefit from the matching program would pull their messages rather than risk consumer confusion.

AOL Time Warner's the WB Network and two groups that benefited, the Library of Congress and KidsPeace National Centers, urged approval of the Ad Council request.

"Inclusion [of the sponsorship ID] may have the result of misleading the public about who paid for creations of the public service announcement and may impact the library's ability to raise funds," warned Jill Brett, public affairs officer for the Library of Congress. The library's ads urging use of the Library of Congress' Web site fall under anti-drug ad matching guidelines.

KidsPeace, too, said it was concerned that the sponsorship mention would confuse people about who pays for its drug awareness program. WB, which also asked that its own public service ads used for the same purpose be exempted, warned that if the FCC didn't support the Ad Council the result would be opposite of what Congress intended.

A decision by the FCC is expected by the end of the month.

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