Gary Ruskin On the Spot

Ruskin’s high school history teacher taught him that “history is out there to be shaped and changed.” And the 38-year-old head of Commercial Alert, which Ruskin launched five years ago with Ralph Nader, has made some inroads in his goal to “keep the commercial culture within its proper sphere.” In 2000, the Portland, Ore.-based advocacy group filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against search engines that skewed results in favor of advertisers, prompting an FTC warning and the labeling of sponsored links. Now Ruskin, a native New Yorker with a masters in public policy from Harvard, is asking the FTC and the Federal Communications Commission to require the prominent disclosure of product placements.

Q. Do you consider yourself an enemy of the advertising industry or are you trying to act as its conscience?

A. “Enemy” is the wrong word. We’re not against advertising. We just think that it should keep in its place, the marketplace, and that it shouldn’t overrun every nook and cranny of our lives and culture. This has a tremendous effect on children.

Which ads or campaigns do you find especially deceptive?

McDonald’s is causing a marketing-related epidemic of obesity and diabetes. I don’t really hate ads. And we don’t usually work on individual ads or ad campaigns.

Which ads do you admire?

I don’t really admire ads, either.

If you could create an ad for any one product or service, what would it be for?

Vegetables. I would have Michael Jordan eat a big pile of vegetables on TV and say how much he loved them.

Besides cigarettes and alcohol, are there any products or services you feel should not be legal to advertise?

Commercial speech deserves no constitutional protection. I don’t mean that companies shouldn’t be able to advertise. Just that no First Amendment protection should be granted. States and municipalities should be able to restrict it as they see fit.

What inspired you to start Commercial Alert?

Two reasons. First, you can’t pick up a newspaper without seeing a new repugnant form of advertising, marketing or commercialism. Second, I also run the [Nader-backed] Congressional Accountability Project, which opposes corruption in Congress. The problem with Congress is that too much is for sale. To get an honest government, we must be less for sale, both in ourselves and our society.

Do marketers sometimes inadvertently help your cause by stumbling into controversy?

They help the cause by overreaching, coming up with “the new intrusion.” I’m quite hopeful. We are winning a lot of battles. People get mad about the new intrusive thing.

How do you think product placements should be handled?

At a minimum, there should be disclosure at the outset of a program, describing the embedded ads that are to follow. And there should also be concurrent disclosure. So when an embedded ad comes up on the screen, there should be superimposed on the screen the word “advertisement.”

What’s wrong with the way product placement is done now?

Embedded advertising has taken over TV. It’s inherently deceptive—most people don’t realize that ads are ads. Viewers are entitled to know by whom they are being persuaded. Embedded ads contribute to the epidemic of marketing-related diseases in children, like obesity, type 2 diabetes, alcoholism, eating disorders and pathological gambling.

Where do you stand on the Do Not Call list? And would you support a Do Not Spam list?

We strongly support the Do Not Call list. But it should have been opt-in, not opt-out. We would support an opt-in Do Not Spam list.

If you could give a creative who’s just starting out in advertising one piece of advice, what would it be?

You’re a talented person. Go do something more constructive with your life. You want a life more meaningful than selling trinkets. Ad people are talented—put your talents to work. The world needs your help. There’s social services, nonprofit organizations, government. But until you get a better job, please leak us documents.

Ad execs might counter that they can’t sacrifice the salary …

Sacrifice defines who we are. We’re a people who have lost their moral compass. [Ad execs are] for sale on the open market instead of doing the right thing.

Other than product placements, what’s the most disappointing creative trend you’ve seen lately in advertising or the mass media?

Creativity isn’t creativity when it is devoted to trinkets.

How would you gauge the administration’s attitude toward marketing and business?

As a shill for business, this one knows no peers. President Bush is the greatest shill for business who has ever sat in the presidency.

Which recent president would you approve of on this score?

Nixon. He championed environmental laws, universal health insurance and a number of consumer laws. Obviously, he was a crook. I don’t mean to excuse him on that.