Graphic Designer Geeks Out: 1st Amendment & Advertising

So, maybe it’s the Elle Woods in me or, possibly, the fact that I grew up with a mother who was horrified when To Kill A Mockingbird was banned at my school, but Congress’s current moves to regulate tobacco advertising have me a little nervous. In case you’ve been slaving over your Wacom tablet or weaving constant CSS dreams and missed this, here’s a rundown on the current situation.

In early June, Congress passed legislation that bans outdoor advertising of tobacco within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds. It also restricts many forms of tobacco print advertising to black-and-white text.

New York Times journalist Duff Wilson has been covering this legislation and wrote that it will come under scrutiny by court on the grounds of free speech: “The law’s ban on outdoor advertising within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds would effectively outlaw legal advertising in many cities, critics of the prohibition said. And restricting stores and many forms of print advertising to black-and-white text, as the law specifies, would interfere with legitimate communication to adults, tobacco companies and advertising groups said in letters to Congress and interviews over the last week.”

The American Advertising Federation “strongly condemns” this legislation. “While the goals of the bill may be admirable,” said Clark Rector, AAF Senior Vice President, Government Affairs, “the legislation gives the wrong federal agency illegal and ineffective authority over tobacco advertising.”

I agree with these viewpoints. I believe that everyone has a conscience. It may not take the form of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, but it guides your actions nonetheless. Blaming advertising for people’s choices frustrates me. Everyone should be able to watch, see, or hear an ad, evaluate that ad based on his or her individual needs, and make the decision that the advertised product either is or is not something he or she has to have. I can hear the naysayers piping in now with “What about the children?” questions. In the case of children, it is the parents’ responsibility to instill values in their children. Children are eager to be guided, and it is this guidance that will surface when they are confronted with a new decision, for example, to join some friends for an after-school cigarette. I feel, that at the moment of choice, it is more about weighing what you know is right versus what you fear your friends will think, not the supposed pull of the sexy, full-color billboard or ad that blipped in and out of your peripheral vision this morning on the way to school.

The most terrifying part of this legislation for us in the marketing business is what could happen next. Daniel L. Jaffe, Executive Vice President of the Association of National Advertisers, said, “Anybody looking at this in a fair way would say the effort here [in this tobacco advertising regulation] is not just to protect kids, which is a substantial interest of the country, but to make it virtually impossible to communicate with anybody.” Would these same advertising regulations be applied to other “dangerous” products such as fast food and alternative medicine? Such regulation ultimately equals Congress interpreting the merit of every product, good and service.

To quote Cher from Clueless, “Until mankind is peaceful enough not to have violence on the news, there’s no point in taking it out of shows that need it for entertainment value.” Likewise, until we are wise enough to stop blaming advertising for our decisions, there’s no point in regulating a seller’s right to advertise a legal product.

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