After years spent defending tobacco ads, it should be plain to ad people that tobacco executives are willing to trade their ad freedoms for their industry's continued survival-no matter what the ad business thinks about it.
Meanwhile, the tobacco issue splits industry people committed to defending the First Amendment right to honestly advertise any and all products from those who demand different standards be applied to ads for a lethal product that appeals to kids and teens. Moreover, some ad people who have taken a beating trying to defend Joe Camel will feel betrayed by their tobacco "allies."
It is true some in the industry have been spoiling for the chance to make tobacco ad critics meet First Amendment strictures and demonstrate that tobacco ad curbs will actually reduce youth smoking. When Congress banned broadcast advertising of cigarettes in 1970, First Amendment protection for ads was still a dream, a principle not yet recognized by the Supreme Court. Now it is part of the legal landscape, and a tobacco settlement will mean that day in court will not come. And just as well, in our opinion. With cigarette ads as the defendant, the risks are great the courts might carve a loophole in the First Amendment that would adversely affect advertising for a long time to come.
A year ago, when Philip Morris Cos. first floated a comprehensive settlement plan, we praised the effort as "its own form of self-regulation, and not necessarily a censorship nightmare." And this settlement plan, it should be pointed out, still allows cigarette advertising-although with the more troublesome aspects of it finally removed.
Now it's time for the ad industry to move on. The legal and ethical problems of tobacco need no longer dominate its agenda. We have long argued in this space that the ad industry must closely determine where its true concerns lie, and that it balance support for the tobacco industry with those larger interests. It's time to do that calculation again and let the tobacco industry go its own way.
The next fight
There should be no "sigh of relief" now that tobacco settlement plans have emerged; far from it. Mostly that's because the proposed tobacco pact-and the Food & Drug Administration regulations that are now part of it-make it clear marketers of all so-called age-restricted products are entering into a new era of controversy.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt has put the TV advertising of spirits brands
into the spotlight, and that's dragged as much as $700 million of broadcast beer and wine ads onto center stage as well. The Federal Trade Commission is probing the beer industry's cable TV ad buys (and Miller Brewing Co. and Anheuser-Busch have scrambled to pull spots from MTV).
Can scrutiny of ad placements for gambling establishments, or even state lotteries, be far behind? Earlier this month, a California Assembly committee passed a resolution calling for a ban on TV ads for alcoholic beverages on shows with audiences made up of those under age 21. The vote: 12 to 1.
The advertising industry had better keep its guard up and its arguments at the ready.