A History of the Media Industry's Self-Regulation of Comparative Advertising

By Beard, Fred; Nye, Chad | Journalism History, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

A History of the Media Industry's Self-Regulation of Comparative Advertising


Beard, Fred, Nye, Chad, Journalism History


The unique problems for the media industry posed by the increasingly widespread use of comparative advertising throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first have not been examined prior to the research in this article. Sources consisted of articles published in the advertising trade literature, including, for the early twentieth century, the industry's foremost journal, Printers' Ink. Findings reveal comparative advertising was rarely viewed as anything other than a serious problem for publishers and broadcasters and also show that disparagement and the validity of comparative claims have been the principal problems driving media advertising self-regulation policies. The article concludes with recommendations for future historical research on the challenges that comparative advertising has created for other entities and institutions involved in the regulation of advertising.

Comparative advertisements contrast identifiable, competing products or services on the basis of some attribute, benefit, or market position. They can be found in early twentieth-century advertising, a time when it was not uncommon for advertisers to porttay competitors' products as unhealthy or harmful. For instance, George Washington Hill's classic "Spit" campaign, for the "Cremo" brand cigar, warned smokers that other brands might have been sealed with the maker's saliva.1

Comparative advertising has often been viewed as both problematical and controversial. Concerns about the truthfulness of comparative price advertising, for example, attracted special scrutiny from early advertising practitioner "vigilance" committees (the forerunners of today's Better Business Bureaus), whose members stepped forward to carry the banner of the progressive "truth in advertising" movement of the 1910s.2

No doubt, many early advertisers agreed with pioneer George Rowell: "Mention the name of a competitor and you advertise him; slander him and you do yourself no end of harm."3 However, an historical study in 2010 found that major advertisets fought comparative advertising wars throughout the twentieth century, many of which grew increasingly hostile over time, leading to problems for the media delivering the advertisements as well as an increased likelihood of potentially misleading advertising.4

Publishers were among the first to take action against misleading advertising, encouraged in part by the early truth in advertising movement, which gave them, as advertising historian Daniel Pope noted, "the courage they needed to enforce higher standatds of advertising acceptability."5 Indeed, the American Business Press was the first industry organization in 1910 to establish a self-regulation code, preceding even that of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. Moreover, problems with comparative advertising also drew the regulatory attention of early publishers, such as Curtis Publications, whose advertising code in the first decade of the twentieth century banned advertisements "knocking" competitors.6

As Avery Abernethy, a frequent contributor to the advertising media self-regulation litetature, noted in 1 993: "Media owners and managers have great power to determine the type of advertising their stations carry because they can review each advertising submission and decide if it is appropriate for their audience."7 Eric Zanot further proposed in 1985, "Some would go so far as to say that this 'behind-the-scenes' process is the most crirical and effective of all the different methods of regulating false and deceptive advertising."8

Until the 1980s, researchers paid little attention to the century-old practice of what early advertisers and publishers called "copy censorship," which came to be referred to in later years as "media clearance." In 1 980, Priscilla LaBarbera noted, "Despite the enthusiasm over the potential benefits and importance of advertising self-regulation, this approach to regulation has not received much attention from researchers. …

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