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Why does the ad industry allow itself to be continually outmaneuvered?

Ad trade executives stubbornly clung to defending the cigarette companies' First Amendment rights to advertise their products anyway they wanted.

Then, when the flak from that extremely rigid no-win stance became too intense, they switched to advocating self-regulatory guidelines not just for cigarettes but for all "age-restricted" advertising, including beer and liquor.

When the cigarette, beer and liquor marketers made it clear they wanted no part of each other, the ad industry quickly backed off and proposed that the Ad Council produce anti-smoking messages. But they hadn't lined up anyone to pay for production of the TV spots, so the Ad Council had to go hat in hand looking for a sponsor.

And now, in the latest twist, a group called the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids has offered to sponsor the ads. Bill Novelli, president of the group that is becoming a real thorn in the industry's side, wrote Ad Council President Ruth Wooden that the center "would be pleased to be the `client,' for this campaign, in partnership with you."

The Tobacco-Free Kids group is made up partly of renegade adpeople who opposed the industry's First Amendment defense of the cigarette industry and who favored FDA regulation. Bill Novelli is the former president of Porter-Novelli, the PR agency now owned by Omnicom.

So now the ad industry has been outflanked again, and allowed an outside group with its own agenda to take over the industry's own initiative. Sometimes I think the ad industry's flirtation with self-regulation for "sin" products was set up to fail. It would have been hard enough to get the cigarette companies alone to agree to self-regulation. R.J. Reynolds at one time seemed to be willing to talk about it, but Philip Morris has its own agenda that centers on slowly surrendering its ad privileges for legislative favors. In the end, there's no doubt in my mind that PM will leave the ad industry twisting in the wind.

To try to get the beer and liquor people in the same boat was an exercise in futility, even though it would have been the "fair" thing to do. The beer and liquor guys, especially, wanted nothing to do with one another. The beer companies are convinced, with good reason, that the liquor companies want to advertise on TV to drive the beer companies off. Burtch Drake, the president of the American Assn. of Advertising Agencies, had the task of trying to corral the beer companies, and they severely rebuked him for his efforts. The beer companies made it crystal clear they don't want to be associated with hard liquor in any way, shape or form.

The ad trade groups retreated from their proposal like it was a hot potato. We headlined our editorial "NARC blinks" and said "that decision was hasty; this proposal deserves more detailed consideration." But the ad groups were feeling the pressure; they had alienated key members in not just the cigarette business but liquor and beer as well, so the groups figured the less said, the better.

The ad industry, once more, is between a rock and a hard place. The Ad Council is sure to turn down the center's offer because Bill Novelli is suggesting the council use TV spots done by state organizations to save money. And when that happens, the center will attack the ad industry for stonewalling.

Oh well, the ad trade groups can always warm up their First Amendment arguments again. They don't seem to have any other cards to play.

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