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What will it take for the advertising industry to finally stand up and say: "This is wrong!"?

Politicians, cigarette companies and now liquor marketers, each for its own reasons, are using advertising in a way that's harmful to the rest of the advertising business. Yet the ad trade associations sit on their hands and mumble that marketers of a legal product have the First Amendment right to advertise in any way and to anybody they want.

When are they going to realize that the cigarette and liquor companies are playing them for chumps? What's even worse, the ability to control what's going on is being taken out of their hands. The industry sits on the sidelines while others dictate the course of events swirling around them.

The liquor people, in the face of widespread outrage, have abandoned their voluntary agreement to stay off television.

Everyone from President Clinton to the head of the Federal Communications Commission to the CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters condemned the move, but the ad industry could only say the liquor industry has the right to do what it wants to do.

How pathetic! About the only more inept leadership is displayed by Major League Baseball owners, who also turn away when someone spits in their face.

What will happen, of course, is that the liquor industry will force a ban on all forms of alcohol-beverage advertising on radio and TV, which many people feel has been liquor's endgame all along. So to protect the liquor industry's right to advertise on TV, the ad trade groups are willing to watch $750 million in beer and wine broadcast advertising go down the drain. How courageous-and how stupid.

In the case of cigarettes, the advertising leadership is being bypassed by renegade admen. A group called Initiative on Tobacco Marketing & Children is conducting a survey of advertising and marketing people to see if they agree with the stance (or lack of one) being taken by the ad trade groups. And it will hold a summit early next year on tobacco marketing and children.

How did the advertising industry get itself in such a mess? It allowed itself to be held hostage by the First Amendment. The ad trade groups are loath to make any concessions on cigarette-and now liquor-advertising because of its fear of jeopardizing its First Amendment commercial free-speech protection.

But some things supersede even the First Amendment, such as supporting common-sense measures to protect kids from coming under the influence of tobacco and liquor advertising. The president of the NAB, Eddie Fritts, didn't get tied up in knots expressing displeasure with the liquor companies: "Despite NAB's staunch support of the First Amendment rights of broadcasters to advertise legal products, we are disappointed with [the industry's] decision to end its voluntary code." What's so hard about that?

The bottom line is that some industry marketers are willing to use advertising for their own narrow and selfish purposes. That's wrong, and the ad groups shouldn't hide behind the First Amendment to skirt the issue.

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