Self-Regulation by the Industry
Some years ago, a television station executive, a friend of one of the authors, received a snippy letter from the Code Authority of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). The letter complained that his station had committed a violation of the NAB Code. In euphemistic language, the letter referred to "products and services of a personal nature" that must be advertised with "special emphasis on ethics and the canons of good taste." His station's specific offense? "Seems we've been running commercials for Preparation H during the dinner hour," he said, adding that any additional advertising for that particular "product of a personal nature" in the future would be telecast during a different time period. He considered it an honor that his station had earned the right to display the NAB Seal, a photo of which he proudly televised to viewers during sign-on and sign-off each day. He did not want to risk having his station's seal revoked in a dispute over the timing of an ad for a medication to treat hemorrhoids.
Not all problems with the NAB Code were so easily resolved. From the beginning--the NAB Radio Code was adopted in 1929 and the Television Code in 1952--the NAB urged its members to pledge themselves to adhere to this ambitious attempt by an industry to police itself. The Code Authority reviewed some 2,000 new commercials a year, including advertisers' documentation of claims made by commercials, and monitored how member stations handled advertising as well as programming. A monthly advisory, Code News, would admonish member stations and networks to beware of current policy. For example: "Presentation of marriage, the family, and similarly important human relationships, and material with sexual connotations, shall not be treated exploitatively or irresponsibly, but with sensitivity."
But enforcing such lofty objectives was not easy. First, NAB membership was purely voluntary (typically only about 40% of all U.S. radio stations and