Television Station Standards for Acceptable Advertising

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Television Station Standards for Acceptable Advertising

While a media vehicle's right to reject questionable advertising material possesses a strong potential force for consumer protection, an unanswered question exists of whether the set of standards applied by individual local television stations actually serves as a significant factor working for consumer interests. This study examines the standards applied by television stations in deciding which commercials would be acceptable for broadcast.

No United States mass media vehicle--television station, magazine, radio station, or newspaper--is required to accept any commercial advertising material it does not wish to carry. Policies and procedures that determine which ads are acceptable, the business activity generally referred to as the "clearance process," became a major focus of consumer protection concerns following deregulation of government involvement in advertising regulation (Hamm 1988; Hayes and Rotfeld 1988). While government agencies greatly decreased their activities during the past decade, the peril of consumer deception remained (Hayes 1987; Kerton and Bodell 1987). The primary research question addressed is how readily media managers restrict revenue by rejecting advertising to serve consumer protection concerns. Many business leaders presume that the clearance process forms a bulwark of consumer protection (Colford 1987), but whether or not it is an effective force working in the consumer's interest beyond the activities of the most well-known companies is unknown.

THE CLEARANCE PROCESS

"It is virtually impossible to run an ad ... without exposing that ad or that commercial to prior review by the [vehicle's owner] or one of the owner's representatives" (Bernstein 1986). "Prior review" can mean, in some instances, provision of strong consumer protection against false and deceptive ads, but it does not necessarily translate into a regular oversight practice by all vehicles, nor does it imply that clearance activities by trade associations or individual vehicles are predomenantly oriented toward consumer protection.

Until 1982, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Television Code provided a major influence on broadcast advertising practice. To consumers, "undesirable" advertising might be found on nonabiding outlets, and fewer than two-thirds of the television stations followed the voluntary code. However, the code was the basis for advertising acceptance decisions at all major networks and many of the larger stations (Linton 1987; Maddox and Zanot 1984). An advertiser wishing to reach those audiences generally chose to follow the code, with the only alternative choice of incurring the expense and possible public relations headache of making two sets of commercials for code and noncode stations.

However, the Justice Department sued the NAB under antitrust laws, claiming that code sections recommending limits on numbers of commercials per hour artificially increased the demand for time, limited its supply and, thus, acted to restrain trade by setting a monopoly price. The NAB responded in 1982 by suspension of all code activities, including those that reviewed commercials for questions of taste and potential audience deception that were not part of the original complaint (Linton 1987).

When the NAB dropped the code authority and its procedures, the three major broadcast networks presented written codes that they would follow. the three similar codes incorporated many aspects from the NAB code (Maddox and Zanot 1984) and have been seen to carry an influence akin to that previously held by the NAB. (1) However, while network guidelines and the now defunct NAB code have served as examples of effective regulation, their current impact on individual stations remains uncertain. NBC, CBS, and ABC made extensive cuts in their clearance departments in 1988 (Gordon 1988; Henry 1988). …