It's Time, Ad Industry: Stand Up and Hold Marketers to Account

Remember This Adage: What's Best for Consumers Is Best for Advertisers

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If tough economic times are ahead, advertising has to change. Claims had better reflect reality because consumers will become especially cautious and critical.

I keep in mind the adage of my old boss Stan Cohen -- what's best for consumers is best for advertisers -- and I wonder if those wise words are being ignored in three major areas: financial services, prescription drugs and sustainability.

It's very apparent that advertisers didn't hold up their end of the bargain in the subprime mess. I've said that the subprime meltdown is, in large measure, a failure of communications, and communicating effectively and clearly and completely is the job of advertising -- at least it should be.

But the sad truth is that many financial marketers didn't want prospective home buyers and mortgage holders to understand the downsides of their transactions: that interest rates can go up without notice, that buyers are taking on too much debt, that housing prices don't always go up.

A more militant ad industry might have been a big help in preventing the financial debacle that's threatening to drag worldwide economies into severe recession.

Ad leaders should have called for financial marketers to do a better job of disclosing the fine print of mortgage lending -- and, yes, Advertising Age should have been there urging them to do so.

Last August I talked with Wally Snyder, president of the American Advertising Federation, about the situation, and I quoted him as saying, "It's becoming pretty darn clear that we've got to accept this problem and bring ethical considerations -- not just legal -- to bear."

Yet, as far as I can see, nothing was done, and so everybody involved, including regulators, the Federal Reserve and ad people, dragged their heels. Now the Fed is requiring certain disclosures in lenders' advertising, but the ad industry could have taken a leadership position there.

One area where ad groups were very forceful was in their unified lobbying against an advertising moratorium during the first two years a prescription drug is on the market. But nobody knows what unexpected adverse reactions a new drug might have, and such reactions would be compounded if the drugs were widely advertised.

The groups argue that limiting drug advertising is an abridgement of commercial free speech, so how about the drug companies agree not to advertise a new drug to consumers for one year? (Of course, they would be free to advertise to physicians.) As Wally pointed out, food companies agreed among themselves to bar ads aimed at kids that might contribute to child obesity, and "even consumer groups have said what the food companies have done is impressive."

Another problem for big pharma is that the industry is running out of breakthrough blockbusters to bring to market, and more and more drugs will be forced to rely on highly imaginative advertising to differentiate almost identical products. We're going to see ads for diseases we never knew were a problem (restless-leg syndrome, anyone?), and critics are bound to step up their cries that the drug firms are getting people to ask for prescriptions they don't need.

Lots of scrutiny also will be paid in the coming year to the sustainability issue. Companies will be clamoring to show they are making important efforts to conserve our natural resources, and the big story will be when they overstate their contributions.

Marketers can't be too careful here. Seemingly innocuous (if stupid) promotions like Toyotathon can backfire. In the ads, people wreck their cars so they can justify buying new Toyotas. But as the Cape Cod Times said in an editorial, "In today's world, how funny is junking a quality machine in good working order and using up more energy and natural resources to replace it?"

So in 2008, advertising will be viewed through a new, harsher prism. It's our job to prod advertisers to stand up to the glare.
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