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The Economy of Ethics: One Ad Man's Take on Truth

Bill Richards

The re-election of President Barack Obama on November 6 was the finale of the most expensive election in American history.  It also ended months of thousands of  political campaign ads aired across the country. 

Wally Snyder has spent decades helping to build an ethical framework for the advertising industry.  He’s the executive director of the Institute for Advertising Ethics, a joint effort of the American Advertising Federation and the University of Missouri.  Snyder was at Michigan State University Tuesday.  He told WKAR’s Kevin Lavery that truth in advertising laws really began to take shape in the 1970’s.

WALLY SNYDER:   “Advertising is critical to the economy.  And that’s been…regulation throughout history is to make sure there are not restraints placed on truthful marketing, because with a market economy, information is very important and competition is very important.

As a matter of fact, in the 1970’s, advertising that is truthful was given First Amendment protection.  I don’t think a lot of people are aware of that.  That came about because the state of Virginia didn’t want price advertising for prescription drugs.  It went all the way to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court gave truthful advertising First Amendment protection.  And the justices stated (that) oftentimes, commercial information is more important to the public or as important as political (information).  So, there’s a feeling in this country that truthful advertising is really critical to the marketplace and for consumer welfare.

KEVIN LAVERY:  You spent 16 years with the Federal Trade Commission essentially as a gatekeeper.  What are the types of sanctions that advertisers face if they’re not completely truthful, and how is that checked?

SNYDER:  The FTC is a very strong public policy-type body.  I mean, it really looks at the pros and cons of regulation.  They bring investigations; they have just shut down, for example, six fake news websites that were nothing more than diet products advertising, but where consumers were misled and were paying $100 for products.  So, they’re very active, they monitor and they set standards.

LAVERY:  You talked about political advertising…why are political campaign ads not held to the same standard as consumer advertising?  We just came through the costliest election in U.S. history; $6 billion.  Political campaigns are built on negative attack ads.

SNYDER:  You know, that’s really well stated, and that’s really a conundrum, and let me just answer it.  Going back to the First Amendment protection of advertising; I said it has to be truthful.  Political advertising is not held to that standard to be protected, and there’s good reason.  We don’t want one side of the government regulating what somebody else can say.  So, it’s going to be a lot different.


The other thing that’s hard to understand is why consumers tell us that they don’t like negative advertising for consumer products, and yet they seem to respond to it in political ads.  I’ve seen research that it works.  I can’t watch anymore of these political ads; I mean, they were so destructive, and I thought they were destructive to the country.  What it was really doing was pulling us apart.  So, commercial advertising is at a whole different standard.  I wish political advertising were at a higher level than it is.

LAVERY:  How do we get it there?  Will it ever get there?

SNYDER:  There would have to be sort of an agreement among those people seeking election that it’s not a good idea to engage in this type of advertising.  I mean, is one guy going to give up doing it if he thinks the other guy isn’t?  And that’s one of the real problems we have in ethics is when we get to a point when I hear, “everybody’s doing it.”  The fact that everybody’s doing it does not make it right.  So, I don’t know…maybe it gets to the level where you get certain people running who are going to take a real high approach, and maybe they get elected and other people look at that and say, maybe we should try that.

Kevin Lavery served as a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things Considered before retiring in 2023.
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