We mean more than just fighting the First Amendment defensive battle whenever government bodies pursue tobacco ad bans. Yes, insisting on tough-minded court reviews is the only barrier to government bans that silence truthful ads but provide no social benefit. But this shouldn't be the only priority for the ad business.
Nearly 30 years ago, besieged by government attacks on the credibility of national advertising, the industry acknowledged that existing standards for truth, accuracy and fairness were no longer good enough. It created the remarkable National Advertising Review Board system of self-regulation to make higher standards a reality.
Today, public tolerance for tobacco ads that appeal to teens is vanishing. An ad hoc group organized by ad agency executives, the Initiative on Tobacco Marketing & Children, is trying to focus industry attention on developing new guidelines for tobacco advertising creative and media placement that further curb its impact on youngsters. The result could be something the NARB system could help implement.
Without confronting the tobacco problem directly, the advertising business will have little positive influence on how it is solved. That leaves it to politicians and regulators, from President Clinton to the Baltimore city council, to impose their own answers.
Does anyone remember the "Chicken Noodle Network?" Back in 1980, at the dawn of the cable industry, that's what the cynics called Ted Turner's CNN because it was operated on such a shoestring budget compared to the three major broadcast networks.
Of course, Ted has prospered just fine, despite starting with little money upfront and a lot of patience. We offer him as a model for all the magazine publishers
now wondering if the Web isn't going to be a big black hole sucking up every dollar thrown into it.
Earlier this month, the Magazine Publishers of America quantified how few magazines were making money on the Web via an Ernst & Young study, and there's no reason not to believe the MPA's data. Web publishers know perfectly well how few ad dollars are really out there right now.
What's not so clear is how the industry will react as this reality sets in. What ought to happen is straightforward: Companies need to make sure their goals are focused and realistic, and they need to operate within reasonable budgets. Maybe a giant Web site and a dedicated staff of 80 isn't the right way to go yet; maybe a tightly focused site run by a small core group makes more sense.
For CNN and other content-strapped early cable pioneers (remember when indoor football was the best ESPN could do?), this model worked very well.
Of course, there's another cable industry example that's relevant here. When CBS decided in 1980 that it too had to enter cable, everything had to be first-class. No Chicken Noodle Network for CBS; the Tiffany Network spared no expense pouring $20 million down the cable rathole with a lavish, high-brow approach way ahead of its time.
Frankly, CNN looks like a better model for serious Web publishers to emulate: Start small and grow with the market. And let the big spenders take care of themselves.