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The self-regulation program under the National Advertising Review Council is the ad industry's greatest accomplishment; it could also become its biggest missed opportunity.

The NARC is teetering on the brink of losing whatever credibility and visibility it's earned in its 26-year life. The Council of Better Business Bureaus, which funds the NARC and its self-regulatory apparatus, says CBBB has more demands than money. So rather than cut back on the case load at CBBB's national advertising self-regulation programs, it was forced to dismiss the NARC's paid full-time president.

Wally O'Brien, who has headed NARC since 1995, helped put teeth into the self-regulatory process. What good does it do for the NARC's units to keep churning out decisions if the program loses its credibility-a credibility the industry has worked long and hard to build?

What people forget was how low the status of the advertising business had sunk at the time NARC was formed.

My old boss, Stan Cohen, longtime Washington editor of Advertising Age, reminded me NARC came into being after 15 years of fighting among the industry, consumer groups and the federal government. "The ad industry," Stan recalled, "refused to take responsibility for keeping its house clean, and it had lost so many political battles it couldn't afford to lose any more. So industry leaders bypassed their own lawyers and set up self-regulation."

Both the ad industry trade associations and the CBBB had been considering similar plans to establish their own ad-review units, and rather than duplicate efforts the ad groups and CBBB joined forces.

Big mistake.

The CBBB is really a grassroots organization whose Better Business Bureau members are adept at refereeing disputes between local buyers and local merchants. That's where its priorities lie, and it's the area that gets most of its funding.

The CBBB has also been expending considerable effort to establish BBBOnLine, a service to help safeguard the privacy of the Internet and E-commerce transactions. But after a year of preparation, it has only 14 sponsors to help foot the bill.

So the NARC money problems couldn't have come at a worse time. NARC and now BBBOnLine combine to create the impression that the CBBB can't marshall the resources when advertisers' reputations are at stake.

It's time for the ad industry to take control of its destiny and take over funding for NARC-and at the same time take a leadership role in assuring that online marketing becomes user-safe.

Where, you might ask, will the money for these endeavors come from? The Advertising Education Foundation has a kitty of some $10 million, earmarked to give college professors internships at ad agencies and advertisers, and to provide funds for speakers at industry forums. The various ad associations have been trying to figure out a way to get their hands on this money, and now the crisis at the NARC and the BBBOnLine problems mayhave provided the opportunity.

American Advertising Federation President Wally Snyder wants to raise $300,000 to pay the salary and travel costs for a new NARC head. That's like putting a quart of oil in your car when you need a whole new valve job.

The NARC self-regulation program is the industry's best kept secret. Most consumers have no idea that the ad industry has its own self-regulation, let alone that it has the respect of the Federal Trade Commission.

What's needed, may I be so bold to suggest, is a greatly rejuvenated and expanded NARC empowered to not only adjudicate deceptive advertising cases but to put a stamp of approval on user-reliable Internet sites that protect the privacy of participants and ensure ethical E-commerce transactions. Stan Cohen believes a trusted organization is needed to develop a comprehensive program of guidelines and standards and to put their logo on all web sites that comply. And advertisers would have confidence to put their money in such sites.

Why can't the ad business create a seal of approval to show consumers the industry is concerned about reputable business conduct? And who better to run the program than the man who characterized NARC as "the best self-regulating system I'm aware of."

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