Things were going well for the 120 advertiser and agency representatives at a government affairs conference here last Wednesday—until Vermont attorney general William Sorrell took the stage.
Sorrell warned that a group of attorneys general from around the country is investigating product placement of cigarettes in movies, the marketing of "lower-risk" tobacco products and whether prescription-drug advertising increases drug costs.
It was not what this group—members from the American Advertising Federation, the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers—wanted to hear, particularly after they had just been praised by a federal trade commissioner for their efforts to self-police bad ads.
"I think it's pretty scary," 4A's president and CEO Burtch Drake told the audience before introducing the next speaker. "I don't like the fact that he is looking into things."
Sorrell's remarks resonated all the more because he is the incoming president of the National Association of Attorneys General, the umbrella group for top state lawyers. He also sits on the board of the American Legacy Foundation, which sponsors the national anti-smoking campaign.
"We are clearly in an investigational stage," Sorrell, a Democrat, said. He noted that the attorneys general are willing to adopt a combination of "persuasion" and "litigation" to achieve their goals, although no specific lawsuit is yet planned.
First, the lawyers want Hollywood to stop glorifying smoking in movies directed at young audiences. "We are seeing an increase in tobacco product placement in movies," Sorrell said, citing recent Dartmouth Medical School studies that examine tobacco brands in movies and the effect on teens. (Senate lawmakers intend to hold hearings on images of smoking in the movies, possibly as soon as next month.)
Second, Sorrell takes issue with "reduced-risk" cigarettes like Quest, which are marketed as having all the taste with fewer carcinogens. "Consumers think, 'These cigarettes are better for me,' " Sorrell said. "Say you have 60 carcinogens and a company takes out four. Is it better for you to jump out of a ninth-story window instead of one on the 10th floor?"
But when Sorrell raised the subject of prescription-drug ads, the anger in the room spiked. Companies spent $3.2 billion on prescription-drug ads last year, up from $2.6 billion in 2002, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.
"How much DTC advertising is a driver of pharmaceutical prices is a big deal," Sorrell said. He suggested lawmakers would find such information useful when making policy decisions.
Wally Snyder, the AAF's president and CEO, said later that he was surprised by the attack on pharmaceutical ads. "We are on the side of the angels, because we are providing valuable content for consumers who need it," he said.
Sorrell wasn't through. Asked for the NAAG's position on marketers' role in the obesity crisis, he said the issue is on his list but not as high up as tobacco or prescription drugs.
Robert Liodice, the ANA's president and CEO, was not impressed. "My concern is the overriding attempt by the government to involve itself in the day-to-day operations of a free and legal enterprise," he said. "I reject the notion that advertising causes obesity. And the whole argument regarding DTC ads is absurd."
Dick O'Brien, evp of the Washington office of the 4A's, suggested Sorrell was posturing because he wants to run for governor of Vermont. "It's hard to understand NAAG's jurisdiction on prescription-drug advertising, which is heavily regulated by the Food and Drug Administration," he said. "Perhaps his initial joke about NAAG [also] standing for the National Association of Aspiring Governors wasn't a complete joke."