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Status Report, Vol. 35, No. 8 | September 30, 2000 Subscribe

Advertising is largely self-regulated, but some countries have limits

When automakers cross the line into irresponsible advertising, the Institute doesn't hesitate to comment. A recent example is an April letter from Institute president Brian O'Neill to General Motors concerning a Saturn commercial that illustrates and promotes speed. Past advertisements for Mitsubishi, Nissan, and Porsche cars also have drawn prompt criticism.

Why do speed-glorifying ads continue to appear? One factor is that much of the content of commercials on U.S. television is protected by the rights of free speech. The Federal Trade Commission, which has jurisdiction over most advertising, investigates cases of inaccurate, misleading, or harmful ads. The Federal Communications Commission, which has authority over the media outlets that sell advertising, says broadcasters must "operate in the public interest." However, no regulations under either purview prohibit the depiction of driving at unsafe speeds.

In practice, judgments about the social responsibility of advertising are left to advertisers and broadcasters. Major television networks such as CBS and NBC say their extensive review processes weed out commercials that don't comply with their standards, including commercials that might encourage viewers to imitate depictions of risky driving.

Advertising industry groups, including the American Advertising Federation and the American Association of Advertising Agencies, also have voluntary standards. But specific rules for car ads aren't articulated.

For these reasons, groups in addition to the Institute continue to monitor the airwaves for bad ads. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, for example, coordinates the annual Harlan Page Hubbard Awards to spotlight the most egregious examples of irresponsible advertising.

In countries other than the United States, ads also are generally self-regulated. However, in some cases standards are more explicit than they are here. For instance, New Zealand's Code for Road Safety in Advertising prohibits ads "glorifying excessive speed."

Britain's Independent Television Commission codes go further. On speed, the guidance states that "speed is not an acceptable platform for automotive advertising. … Nor may advertising present driving at high speeds as exciting or exhilarating, or portray driving as if it were a competitive sport. Conversely, there must be no suggestion that driving safely or cautiously is staid, dull or boring."

Likewise, the codes for print ads in Britain proclaim that "advertisers should not make speed or acceleration claims the predominant message."

The limits of regulatory power may not be negotiable, but firming up voluntary standards in the United States, as in other countries, might prevent more bad commercials from slipping through.

Vehicle ads ignore safety

Consumers care about safety, but automakers undermine it by emphasizing only speed and power in their advertising.

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