Dossier D.C.: Ad-Ulterated

If the V-chip is allowed to block alcohol ads, are all ads at risk?
The B-chip–B for booze ads–is back.
Remember when the idea of blocking out “offensive” programs caused a furor at the networks? The heat is still on. Now liquor advertisers are in the line of fire. The Campaign for Alcohol-Free Kids, along with the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the American Council on Alcohol Problems, is carrying on the fight. They recently petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to expand the capability of the V-chip to include beer and alcohol advertising.
While no one expects the FCC to take immediate action on the petition, the request is a provocative one. It represents a burgeoning trend that strikes fear into any red-blooded advertiser’s heart: constituencies using the V-chip to block TV ads they find offensive.
Indeed, even the V-chip’s worst critics expect the idea to gain momentum. It came up informally last summer, when the FCC embarked on a fact-finding mission to gather information on the subject of alcohol ads and their appeal to children. The recently approved V-chip, which will be available as a stand-alone unit this summer, as well as added to some TV sets by the year 2000, allows parents to block programming. The recently implemented TV-ratings system blocks shows by age, levels of sex, violence, language and suggestive dialogue.
The idea of rating or blocking ads, however, is uncharted territory, and ad lobbyists in Washington, D.C., aren’t happy. After all, if viewers can block one type of ad, they could ultimately block all ads. Of course, the worst-case scenario for the advertising industry is that the V-chip could one day block all the TV spots in the Super Bowl.
The $695 million dollar question: Is this a serious threat? To date, the FCC hasn’t usually responded to petitions; in fact, an FCC representative said it would take a marked increase in alcohol ads this spring to seize Chairman Bill Kennard’s attention. Moreover, Kennard would face vociferous opposition to such an action, much like he did when he vowed to rule in favor of free airtime for politicians. Both alcohol ads and free airtime fall within the “public interest” mandate of the FCC.
“We have major problems with this proposal,” says Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers. “We do not believe the FCC has authority in this area.” He’s right. The Federal Trade Commission regulates deceptive and unfair practices in advertising–including harm to children–on a case-by-case basis.
Some members of Congress have put their money where their mouth is. They told the FCC they didn’t think alcohol ads are within its purview–and threatened the agency’s funding.
The Campaign for Alcohol-Free Kids, however, isn’t without clout of its own. It not only counts politicians from its home state of Florida on its side, it’s in the process of cultivating certain members of Congress sympathetic to its cause. So what happens if the group secures serious congressional support?
For any kind of advertising V-chip to work, the industry would have to rate itself much like the broadcast industry has done, explains David Moulton, press secretary to U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. Markey’s office is at the forefront of getting the V-chip up and running. Once the ads are rated, parents could conceivably block them.
Sandy Golden, president of the Campaign for Alcohol-Free Kids, takes a different view. He would like to equip the V-chip with the capacity to block just alcohol ads. “We have a very specific objective. More kids know the Budweiser frogs than the name of our vice president. We want to change that,” says Golden, a self-described strategist who helped establish Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Golden admits the research may be ambiguous in this area. For starters, it’s difficult to prove that advertising causes substance abuse in youth. But he also believes “lizards, frogs and penguins in alcohol ads are appealing to kids. This is not about censorship. This is about choice.”
Allen Banks, executive media director for Saatchi & Saatchi in New York, feels adamantly that the B-chip is “clearly censorship. It’s blacklisting a product irrespective of how responsible any of the ads in the category may be.”
A larger issue surrounds the nature of the V-chip itself. Is it reasonable to block only offensive programming, yet air what some advocacy groups deem offensive ads?
Incredibly enough, Golden says his position even gives broadcasters a silver lining. He claims they could make money by determining who is blocking out alcohol ads, then replace the spots with more appropriate fare. In essence, he suggests that broadcasters use V-chip data as a tool for targeting families.
Neither advertisers nor ad agencies are likely to endorse Golden’s plan. The ad industry depends on creativity, competition and billings. If the the V-chip eventually allows viewers to block ads, it will give new meaning to the term “free TV.”
News & Notes
FTC Commissioner Mary Azcuenaga is retiring from public service after 14 years as a commissioner and 25 years as a staff member. Azcuenaga, who is known less as a bureaucrat and more as a person of integrity, has helped shape the policies and practices that regulate the advertising industry.
One area she has devoted attention to in recent years is the FTC’s aggressive crackdown on diet supplements, a push Azcuenaga insists will continue after she’s gone.
Today, 7 out of 10 Americans take some kind of diet supplement, hoping to reach the nirvana of their ideal body. Azcuenaga, who is leaving the FTC in June for the private sector, said she could not discuss ongoing investigations, per FTC policy.
Recent high-profile cases include charges against Herbal Ecstasy, which an increasing number of kids take as a “natural high.” Commercials on MTV and Nickolodeon, as well as point-of-sale and Internet ads, claim the product is safe and does not cause side effects.
Because many teens have been using Herbal Ecstasy in high doses, Global World Media Corp., the company that manufactures Herbal Ecstasy, agreed last summer to begin warning consumers about risks to the nervous system and heart when it’s used inappropriately.
In addition, the FTC has brought claims against dozens of advertisers of diet supplements that sometimes target Spanish-speaking immigrants and other vulnerable groups unable to decipher deceptive messages.
For instance, the FTC has forced makers of products such as Nutra Trim Bio-Active Cellulite Control Cream and NutraTrim Weight Loss Tablets to clean up their act.
Current diet supplement advertisers with exaggerated claims can expect the FTC–which has been accused in other arenas of being a toothless tiger–to hunt them down, promises Azcuenaga.
“We have brought 54 cases over the last several years,” she says, sitting in her Pennsylvania Avenue office. “Since sales have increased enormously, I think our response is representative of how the commission responds to new problems.”
Another controversial area for the FTC is policing privacy practices on the Internet. Its specific charge is to try and ensure that Web sites asking for personal information tell the consumer exactly what they are doing with it.
The FTC has been holding random sweeps of Web sites to view their privacy disclosures. Sources at the FTC say the report will be fairly negative, though Azcuenaga had no comment.
Many advertisers’ Web sites don’t have a privacy policy, despite the fact that trade groups are trying to alert their members to the importance of having one. That edict is particularly key on children’s sites.
“I think as we focus attention on this and release the report, some advertisers will emerge as leaders,” says Azcuenaga, “while others will be forced to realize the importance of informing consumers. It’s that simple.”