An unreported, unique event occurred last week in Washington that illustrates. once again how corporate-indentured is much of the media and how absurd is Senator Jesse Helms’ claim that the media is too liberal.
At a ceremony held in a prominent Washington hotel, with the media invited, 8 national consumer and health organizations, led by the respected Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), selected eight of “the most dishonest, unfair or deceptive” ad campaigns of the past year for the “Harlan Page Hubbard Memorial Award.”
CSPI said that the awards ceremony was meant to contrast with the annual Clio awards by the advertising industry for its best ads of the year last weekend. “While advertising agencies should be praised for the creative genius that goes into so many ads,” said Dr. Michael Jacobson, director of CSPI, “we also believe it is important to recognize that this same genius often produces trickery, deception, and misleading advertising claims.”
The name of Harlan Page Hubbard was chosen for the trophy a bronze-colored victory figure grasping a lemon — to recall the first advertising executive who used false and deceptive advertising techniques on a broad scale. Hubbard is known for trying to foist on consumers the Lydia Pinkham’s vegetable compound, an 1890’s quack “cure” for kidney disease and other ailments.
Harlan Hubbard aside, the provocation for the consumer groups’ awards is the failure of the Federal Trade Commission and other federal regulatory agencies under Ronald Reagan to enforce the laws against ads that harm people or take their money through fraud and deception.
The day of the Hubbard awards was a beautiful one in the nation’s capital. So too was the care dedicated to the Hubbard award presentation room. Videotapes and print expressions of the ads, together with pictorial storyboards of the television ads, were available for press scrutiny. Specialists from the various sponsoring consumer groups were there to explain and justify their selections.
The following day I checked to see what was reported. There was nothing in the New York Times, the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal. There was nothing on the three network television evening or morning news shows. The large Knight-Ridder and Gannett newspaper chains, including Gannett’s USA Today (whose reporter was present) did not inform their readers. Stories did go out on two wire services and the three local television stations did competent reports on the ceremony. No one was there from Time or Newsweek, Business Week, Forbes or Fortune, though these magazines often cover advertising topics.
Here are some of the Hubbard award recipients:
“Children’s Advertising — Action for Children’s Television nominated the U.S. Tobacco Company for unfairly advertising Skoal Chewing Tobacco to impressionable teenagers. Chewing tobacco has been linked to cancer of the mouth. The television commercial was produced by Warwich Advertising, Inc.
“Automobile Advertising — The Center for Auto Safety nominated Volvo for glamorizing reckless driving in TV ads for the company’s 760 Turbo model. The commercial was produced by the agency of Scali, McCabe and Sloves, Inc.
“Cigarettes — The Council on Smoking OR Health (which includes the American Lung Association, American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society) nominated the R.J. Reynolds Company for its false and misleading ad called “Of Cigarettes and Science.” The ad attempts to dispute the well-accepted connection between heart disease and smoking. The ad campaign is being handled by the agency of Leber, Katz.
“Food — CSPI nominated the Beef Industry Council for its deceptive “Beef Gives Strength” advertising campaign. The multimedia campaign, produced by Ketchum Communications, deceptively portrays the health effects of beef by ignoring the high fat content of most red meats. High fat diets have been linked with heart attacks and certain forms of cancer, not good health and strength.
“Alcoholic Beverages — The Council on Alcohol Policy (represented by the Trauma Foundation) nominated Miller Brewing Co. for television advertising that associates beer drinking with driving by featuring this year’s Indy 500 winner Danny Sullivan. Even the usually phlegmatic Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has criticized this ad, handled by the J. Walter Thompson agency.
“Drugs — The National Women’s Health Network nominated the Thompson Medical Company for deceptive advertising of Dexatrim diet pills. The campaign implies that the pills are safe to use, but neglects to mention that the product is dangerous for the 40% of all overweight-people who suffer from hypertension. The ads are produced by Saatchi, Saatchi, and Compton.”
CSPI’s Bruce Silverglade hopes these awards will spur advertisers to higher ethical standards and jar the FTC from its neglect. These goals are more likely to be reached if the media reports the news about bad ads once in a while.