Darlene Lieblich is a five-time Jeopardy champion, a classical pianist and a gourmet cook. She has an M.B.A. and belongs to Mensa. And for more than 25 years, she's been a thorn in the side of many an ad agency.
As executive director of the standards and practices department at Fox, Lieblich is part of an influential but secretive group of about 30 censors at the major broadcast networks who dictate to advertising executives and marketers what they can and cannot put on national television. Fox and other networks influence what goes in an ad as early as the storyboard stage. They comment on about half of the ads they see, most often with questions about accuracy but also with concerns about taste.
Lieblich's boss, Roland McFarland, likes to say that agencies welcome the feedback from network clearance departments, that the system is not an adversarial one. But frustrated clients and ad agencies say that the clearance process is arbitrary and unfair, with an abundance of double standards and unwritten rules.
"The networks don't play fair about blood, guts and sex," says Rich Silverstein, co-chairman of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco. "Judgments about the ads depend on who is doing the judging that day. And their standards are a moving target."
Recalling his agency's squabbles over commercials for E*Trade and the California Milk Processor Board, Silverstein asks, "Are these people trying to be moralists, or are they just trying to prevent complaints?" (See sidebar on page 30 for examples of work, including one "Got milk?" spot, that the networks questioned.)
In McFarland's view, his department is trying to assist both agency and viewer. "We help agencies tailor and craft their ads for the broad-spectrum audience," he says. "We are part of the creative process. We know what plays with our audience and what will have more impact."
Twenty years ago, when network television still ruled the airwaves, the networks employed three or four times as many advertising censors. Standards and practices executives seem to have a view of their work that comes from those glory days, comparing their endorsement to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. They see their mission as preserving the vision of the ads and protecting ever-evolving social values.
Along with ensuring that product claims are accurate, their goal is to prevent complaints from the audience or other advertisers. Sex, violence, adult language, unsafe or anti-social behavior and controversial political views receive careful scrutiny. "We get a report card every day," says Lieblich, 49. She and the other censors in the Los Angeles-based department get a passing grade from the network if ads they approved air without incident.
Clearance editors look at between 50 and 150 spots a day, sometimes examining revised iterations of an ad three or four times. A lot of ads don't make it through the process. Last May, ABC's vice president of commercial standards, Harvey Dzodin, told the Federal Trade Commission that his network approves only about two-thirds of the 38,000 new commercials it reviews each year.
One of the rejects was a Converse sneaker ad created by Houston Effler & Partners in Boston several years ago. It featured "Lupo the Butcher," who gets whacked by his own cleaver as, cursing in Italian, he tries to turn a high-top shoe into a low-top. ABC deemed the cartoon butcher too bloody, too vulgar and too ethnic for mass audiences. Houston Effler then tried unsuccessfully to run Lupo on Fox after making changes that included toning down some of the ad's colorful language. Despite the fact that network dramas and comedies were experimenting with comparable animation and violent story lines, the changes were not enough to propel Lupo into the commercial limelight. Ironically, ABC later asked to feature him and his bloody escapades in the show World's Funniest Com mer cials. The same audience that would be offended by Lupo's antics in a commercial would apparently lap him up on a TV show.
"The networks hold up these standards for advertising, and they tell us not to show certain content, which are visual images that they themselves will put in their programming," says Pete Favat, now creative director at Arnold in Boston, who worked on the Converse ad. "There is definitely a double standard, and it has always frustrated me as a creative person that I am limited in what I can use to communicate an idea."
Networks argue that they give agencies ample leeway to communicate concepts. "We do not act as censors," says CBS representative Dana McClintock. "We work in a constructive way with advertisers to make sure that we, as carriers of the public trust, present things in the best possible light to viewers."
At the same time, clearance officials refuse to publish their decisions as to why they revise or reject spots. The reason? Dzodin told FTC regulators that not doing so "encourages advertisers to participate in the process if it's kept among us."
Fox has five or six full-time clearance editors reporting to Lieb lich; NBC has three, and CBS has about seven, the same number as ABC. Lieblich says clearing ads is one of those odd jobs that some people are born to do. Qualifications are somewhat arbitrary—while law and business degrees are valued, most editors come armed with only a B.A. in liberal arts. They learn about advertising on the job. More than half of them have been clearing ads for a decade or longer.
Fox boasts that two of its editors have legal credentials: One used to work as a civil litigator, the other handled legal clearance for a literary agency. At CBS, censors have backgrounds ranging from law to psychology. ABC has one censor with a background in advertising, which is rare.
Entry-level clearance editors start at about $30,000 a year, sources say. After 10 years, they make about $50,000, while longtimers and managers eventually make up to $100,000.
While Fox is known for its young and sometimes irreverent programming, the network has a reputation as "family-friendly"—translation: cautious and conservative—when it comes to commercials. In fact, it is considered tougher to please than the Big Three.
McFarland, 60, oversees evaluators for both advertising and programming, which are handled separately. He started out as a clearance editor at ABC 30 years ago, examining shows such as The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch. Now he's a doting grandfather hooked on tennis, the beach and the Lakers. For the last decade, he has volunteered for the NAACP's Academic Olym pics and other local youth groups.
The NBC, ABC and CBS clearance departments are all based in New York. Alan Wurtzel, a former university teacher and a textbook author with a Ph.D. in mass communications, started supervising NBC's ad clearance last year in addition to his duties as president of research and media development. Like McFarland at Fox, 54-year-old Wurtzel makes the final decision when subordinates are on the fence about whether a controversial ad should run. He says the clearance job requires patience, a devotion to detail, critical thinking and analytical skills—it is not unusual for an evaluator to study an ad frame by frame.
ABC's Dzodin, 54, has had responsibility for all commercials broadcast on the network since 1982. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a former attorney for the FTC and served as counsel to President Carter's White House Conference on Families. He declined comment for this story.
At CBS, Martin D. Franks, executive vice president in charge of clearance ads and programming, has also moved in Washington's political circles, having served as executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and former chief of staff to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. Franks, 51, a Princeton University graduate with a degree in politics, joined CBS in 1988 as the network's government lobbyist. Franks makes the final call on all ads at CBS, but it is Matthew Margo, vice president of program practices and a Harvard Law School graduate, who oversees the day-to-day process.
Usually an evaluator is assigned a particular product category and thus works with the same clients and agencies for years. Relationship building is paramount if a shop wants to earn a clearance department's trust. But agencies and clients say that what flies with a group of censors at one network isn't necessarily embraced by other networks.
Nike knows this firsthand. A spot created by longtime Nike agency Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Ore., that featured cycling champion and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong was accepted without changes by all the networks where it was submitted except for ABC. For the ad to run, the shop had to omit a scene showing doctors drawing Armstrong's blood, because the censors said it was too graphic. Also cut from the spot, say sources, was Armstrong saying "busting my ass," because the language was considered obscene.
The networks say this inconsistency between standards and practices departments is uncommon and that if one network has problems with an ad, the others will usually also have problems. At the same time, they acknowledge that the process is inherently subjective, with decisions made on a case-by-case basis.
"Ultimately, I know of no way to remove some degree of subjectivity from the process," says Franks. "However, our decisions on any ad are the product of a review by more than one person, and we do our best to be guided by precedent, consistency and a desire to serve the sometimes competing interests of our three constituencies: our audience, our affiliates and our advertisers."
There is a recourse for advertisers who feel they have been treated unfairly: They can appeal to the network sales department, which has the authority to overrule the censors. But because clearance editors tend to stay in their jobs for years and have long memories, agencies and clients are leery of this option. "I'd say, 'Why go to sales and then we'll all be mad at each other?' " recalls a retired censor. "Nine times out of 10 they wouldn't go to sales."
The name of the game, say agencies and clients, is negotiation and veiled threats. Censors might request extra modifications so they have something to bargain with, say former evaluators. Then they cajole agencies into making the requested changes and staying on good terms with them rather than appealing to the sales department.
One of the unspoken realities behind this process is the size of the buy, or "SOB" factor. Although clearance staffers publicly insist they don't favor clients with big budgets, it's a factor that's hard to dismiss.
Negotiations between network censors and ad agencies usually boil down to elements of a spot that, to some, may seem relatively insignificant. "A lot of times it comes down to arguing with agency creatives over minor issues, over a single shot or a word in an ad," says NBC's Wurtzel. "It's hard to believe [details] like that are going to affect the ad that much."
Many creatives fundamentally reject this attitude. "The details are everything," says Cliff Freeman, chief creative officer of Cliff Freeman and Partners in New York. He says his shop would rather ditch a concept entirely than try to execute it with substantial changes mandated by censors.
In one closely watched case early last year, the agency tussled with networks over parody ads for Mike's Hard Lemon ade, which showed characters losing limbs on the job. In one, a lumberjack misses the timber he's cutting when a co-worker calls his name. Off goes his foot, along with the new boot his wife just purchased. "Tough break," says the co-worker. But all is made well when the hopping lumberjack sits on a barstool and drinks his Mike's.
Networks approved the ad after the agency modified it by making the accidental amputation less graphic. But later they decided against running the ad, citing concerns about the category of spiked fruit drinks. Local affiliates aired the spots anyway and received few complaints. Months later, some of the networks came back to Cliff Free man and asked to run them.
Sometimes agencies persuade networks to allow an ad to run once in order to gauge the public's reaction. Or they ask for an ad to run subject to viewer complaint—if viewer response is negative, the ad is out. Shops also ask censors to watch ads more than once before making judgments, because they've found that evaluators' first impressions tend to be tougher. Friendly clearance officers can also warn when a rejection is imminent, so a shop can remove the ad from national consideration and seek approval from the network's regional affiliates instead. (Affiliates have their own censorship departments for spots that run regionally, and by and large they are less tough than the networks' national censors.)
The vagaries of the clearance game are probably most apparent when it comes to paid advocacy ads with a political or social message. The American Legacy Foundation, with a $100 million budget for anti-smoking ads, asked Arnold, one of its lead shops, to compare the compliance process for ads in general with the process for Legacy ads. In its study, prepared in 2000, Arnold reported that "there have been key differences between the way Legacy's 'Truth' ads are cleared and the way other major clients' ads are cleared. While networks typically require agencies to clear ads at the storyboard phase and when final spots are ready, 'Truth' ads have also had to be approved at the rough-cut stage."
Two years ago, some of Ogilvy & Mather's creative work for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy had a bumpy ride with NBC's and ABC's standards and practices departments. The spots showed parents chatting on the phone, watching television and sending e-mails—time they could have spent talking to their kids about drugs. NBC argued that the ads portrayed those activities in a negative light when there was no concrete evidence that watching TV or talking on the phone prevented parents from being involved with their kids. In the end, ABC refused to run one of the four spots and NBC rejected three, according to sources.
Networks acknowledge a discomfort with social-issue ads. "On matters of public issues, those with the deepest pockets should not be able to dominate the debate," says a network executive. "By rejecting advocacy advertising, we are not letting one side with more money have a greater chance of winning in the public arena."
More often, however, network censorship is less a matter of public-policy principles and more a matter of, well, the bloody, the obscene, the crass or the gross. Mostly it's a matter of avoiding controversy. "We need to please a broad and heterogeneous audience—it's a huge responsibility," says NBC's Wurtzel.
Agencies exasperated by the process admit that clearance officers serve one important purpose: They help keep federal regulators at bay. "The last thing we want is to have the Federal Trade Commission come in and regulate this approval process," says an agency source. "Call those network clearance folks a necessary evil."