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The ad industry leaders who sit on the National Advertising Review Council are clearly taking the right course in agreeing to examine how this industry's self-regulation program might address some of the controversies that today engulf advertising for tobacco and alcoholic beverages.

We know this is the very first step in an uncertain and difficult conversation among representatives of the general ad community and the tobacco and alcoholic beverage industries. Yet it is an important step, and we urge the widest possible industry support for this effort.

It acknowledges the public unease about the advertising of tobacco products and alcoholic beverages, and how those ads and other forms of marketing impact the youth of this country. And it says these problems deserve the attention of the entire ad industry. This is not just the tobacco industry's problem or the alcoholic beverage industry's problem, nor is it simply government nanny-ism to be countered by waving the First Amendment. It is a problem that serious-minded people, concerned about the long-term health of advertising, should attend to.

This NARC initiative comes in a window of opportunity for the ad industry to gain some footing against the critics who urge punitive government intervention against marketing. These critics seek every opportunity to persuade the public that ads are to blame for social problems and that ad bans are the only answer. Why cede the platform to those voices and their allies in government?

We hope the beverage alcohol and tobacco industries will see the benefit in ad industry peer review of their marketing. Real, working self-regulation has not always been comfortable for the companies that submit to it. But it has made for greater public acceptance of advertising, and it can work here too.

In this issue of Advertising Age, we swoosh down on Nike to award it Marketer of the Year honors for 1996. One week ago, we named ESPN Cable TV Marketer of the Year.

A closer look at both to determine their award-winning formulas for brand marketing reveals they share more than a great ad agency (Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., also the agency for Ad Age's 1994 Marketer of the Year, Microsoft).

Nike and ESPN are not just a product marketer and media brand, respectively, with ties to the sports world. Both have transcended those roles by weaving their brands into the very fabric of sports, capturing the essence of athletic competition and the human spirit.

Nike in many ways is as much a true sports franchise as, say, the Chicago Bulls-albeit to the chagrin of some pundits. Nike's Liz Dolan says the footwear kingpin "start[s] with sports as our brand positioning." Likewise, ESPN's Judy Fearing says that "wherever sports fans watch, read and discuss sports, ESPN is going to be there." (Starbucks, a great marketer from outside the sports universe, has similarly moved beyond being a seller of brewed beans by becoming a part of the culture it serves.)

Wieden's role in the success of Nike and ESPN can't be overlooked. In that agency, these marketers share a creative resource with a deep understanding of the role of sports in the global culture and its connection to fans. Advertising for both AA-honored marketers stresses that relationship over product pitches.

A sound strategy and game plan, brilliantly executed on the playing field, is what generates fans for top sports teams. When marketing is the game, we're fans of Nike and ESPN because of what they have done with their respective brands.

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