He became president of JWT and finally vice-chairman of the board. Last year, NARC created the office of president and offered the post to Mr. O'Brien, who left an eight-year tenure at Ogilvy & Mather to accept. He was interviewed in his New York office by free-lance writer John McDonough.
Advertising Age: What trends do you see in the work of the NARC?
Walter O'Brien: The nature of the issues we look at hasn't changed. What's interesting is the number of cases. After peaking early in our history, it's been about the same over the last five years or so. We had 97 cases last year, maybe 102 this year.
The only recent trend is that we're doing marginally more advertiser challenge cases than ones from our own monitoring, up to about 68%. There's also a small fall-off in the number of consumers that contact us. But that's a function of our low public profile.
AA: What would advertisers face if this office became so diminished that the Federal Trade Commission moved in full bore? Why is it in their interest to keep that from happening?
Mr. O'Brien: At the moment, we probably have more freedom to use our creative powers than people anywhere else in the world. I think it would reduce the creativity devoted to advertising, and, therefore, reduce its effectiveness and remove it as an important part of product marketing. Advertising contributes to choice. It tells you that you have choices and what they are. That could be taken away, and people's lives wouldn't be as rich.
AA: Does the threat of government regulation seem low in the U.S. now?
Mr. O'Brien: That was my perception a year ago when I came to NARC. Although people like Howard Bell have opened my eyes a bit. [People in government] are picking up some of the same language used back in 1969-71 from some of the freshman senators and congress people now-radical consumer language.
The irony, of course, is that many of these people may have used questionable advertising to get elected. But once elected, all advertising is bad.
AA: Aren't these the people who want to get government off our backs?
Mr. O'Brien: Yes, but advertising is easy to attack.
AA: So to the extent that advertising embraces contemporary lifestyles that are uncomfortable to these people, they want government very much on our backs.
Mr. O'Brien: That's right. And the industry should be concerned. But there are so many other things on the public agenda, there is no immediate threat of government regulation right now. This is largely because NARC has built a solid track record and proved that self-regulation can work.
The FTC trusts us to oversee truth and accuracy issues, and this frees the FTC to go after the real scam artists, of which there are no shortage. Also, consumer groups are not as loud as they used to be, but they're probably better organized.
AA: What is your view of NARC's next five years?
Mr. O'Brien: The FTC calls us one of the country's best-kept secrets. I want that to change.
There are two areas where we are virtually unknown and unappreciated. One is the American consumer. We have done a lousy job of banging our own drum, and that has hurt us.
The other area is that part of the industry itself that is under the age of about 40. I pick up no sense that these men and women understand their freedoms were fought for 25 years ago by some people who had foresight.
So, for goal No. 1, I would like us to be well known among all generations in the advertising chain. That includes the media too. I think everybody who's in the practice of advertising ought to be aware of us, respect us and value us. In an ideal world, they would all be word-of-mouth advertisers for voluntary self-regulation.
Second, working with the American Advertising Federation and the Better Business Bureaus, I would like to put in place in all colleges that teach communications a program that involves self-regulation. We must help students learn the strategic value of this for the industry before they get into their career.