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FCC Decision On Anti-Drug Spots Jolts Advertisers
Disney and Viacom warn Ad Council

One of the building blocks of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy's media campaign -- the guarantee of increased public service ads -- is being threatened by a little-noted Federal Communication Commission decision. That decision requires the Office of National Drug Control Policy to identify the programming for which it gets ad credit.

Two TV networks, believed to be Walt Disney Co.'s ABC and Viacom's CBS, have warned the Advertising Council that the FCC's December decision, reached after a petition filed by the National Organization for Normalization of Marijuana (NORML), also raises that concern about ads.

Specifically, the question is whether the $100 million-plus worth of public service ads aired annually by broadcasters to comply with matching requirements of the media campaign-and identified as coming from groups like Big Brothers Big Sisters of America or other organizations -- either have to be labeled as sponsored by the drug office or matched only with ads created for the drug office.

The Ad Council, fearing the drug office identification on public service ads created for other groups would confuse messages or that the PSAs might disappear, is preparing to file a petition with the FCC as soon as this week asking for a declaratory ruling that the ads don't need to carry identification.

'A disconnect that detracts'

"We want viewers to be left with a positive message" about the group whose PSA is being shown, said Peggy Conlon, president-CEO of the Ad Council. She warned identification of spots as coming from the drug office would create "a whiplash -- a disconnect -- that detracts from programs."

The PSAs are aired as part of the tradeoffs built into the White House anti-drug program, which spends about $150 million annually on media. For every ad the drug office runs, media companies must provide a free ad or programming of equal value.

Because both Congress and the drug office wanted to make sure the matching ads didn't bounce other public service advertisers, several precautionary steps were taken. For example, the drug office said it wouldn't use its own ads created by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America to fulfill the match; instead, it would use public service ads created by other groups very generally related to issues raised by drugs (though often not mentioning drugs at all).

Each month, the Ad Council designs campaigns that publishers and broadcasters can choose from, while the American Advertising Federation qualifies local public service efforts. Some of the campaigns are from the Ad Council itself, but several other groups also get campaigns on the qualifying reel.

NORML action

NORML didn't petition the FCC to act on drug office ads. Rather, in February 2000, NORML petitioned the FCC to require disclosure when programs were being used to fulfill the match. In December, the FCC enforcement staff generally rejected NORML's complaint, noting that the drug office doesn't offer credit until after a program has run, thus making the issue moot. But it agreed that disclosure should be made when a network knows a rerun will get credit.

Ad Council officials said the decision raised immediate concerns among broadcasters because broadcasters know in advance that they are submitting the PSA spots for credit.

"They want to make sure. ... They don't want to be put in a compromised position," said Ms. Conlon, adding that she was unaware of any broadcaster who has responded by declining to run matching PSAs, though the group has taken no chances and is asking the FCC to act quickly.

TV networks didn't return phone calls or declined comment, while the White House drug office said it would be "inappropriate" to comment on a possible regulatory decision expected to come before an executive department regulatory agency.

The result of the Ad Council's request is not certain.

NORML's Keith Stroup last week said his group believes public service ads used to match drug office ads should be identified as paid for by the drug office.

"If someone wants to run a public service ad and they are using [the Office of National Drug Control Policy], without question, in any sense of fairness, it should be divulged," he said. "The whole underpinning [of the FCC decision] is that the public has a right to know. If somebody is paying, then we have a right to know that."


Ira Teinowitz, Advertising Age. March 27, 2001

Copyright © 2001 Crain Communications Inc.. All rights reserved.