ABC Considers Loosening Rules on Commercials


Remember that peculiar TV commercial a few years ago, where a soap-opera actor announced, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV"--and then proceeded to trade on his TV persona to sell some over-the-counter remedy?

Such Hippocratic high jinks could go by the boards at ABC if the network goes ahead with proposed revisions of its guidelines for advertisers about the content of TV commercials.

The network wants to relax several of its standards, including a longstanding ban against having doctors--or actors impersonating doctors--endorse health products.

Another change proposed by ABC would be one allowing celebrities to endorse products outside their professions in advertising to children. For instance, basketball star Michael Jordan could endorse a video game for kids, ABC executives said--although he couldn’t be used to sell them sneakers.


The sound of off-camera drinking (but not pictures of on-camera imbibing) would be allowed in TV commercials under ABC’s guidelines. And there would probably be more “before and after” diet photos of the kind seen in an Ultra SlimFast commercial featuring Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, fat and thin.

In addition, a company that has a complaint about claims made by a competitor in a TV commercial would go to the competitor first, then to the network.

The way it works now, an advertiser would complain to the network first.

The proposed changes--which are being circulated for comment among advertisers and ad agencies--come at a time when the networks are facing declining advertising revenue. But ABC executives insist that the proposals are not the result of increased pressure for advertising dollars.


“This is part of a periodic review of our guidelines, and it would affect only a small percent of the 50,000 commercials we review every year,” said Harvey Dzodin, ABC vice president in charge of commercial standards. “This is not a significant change in our policies or the standard of proof that we require from advertisers.”

In addition to regulation by the Federal Trade Commission and self-policing by the advertising industry, the broadcast networks have long maintained their own detailed rules about the content of TV advertising. Some ads that they reject are broadcast by cable and independent TV stations.

“The broadcast networks may feel that they’re losing certain revenues to cable,” Frank Mooney, director of legal affairs for the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency, said in an interview.

“But they may also be saying to themselves, ‘Why should we be the policemen? Why aren’t advertisers more responsible for substantiating their own claims?’ ” Mooney said. “In general, I think ABC is simply modernizing some fossilized regulations. There’s been a double standard between what the networks put on in TV programming and what’s allowed in commercials. Some of these regulations come out of the days of Prohibition.”


With regard to using health professionals to endorse products, ABC’s Dzodin said, the network would require product makers to provide surveys showing that a significant number of health professionals of the sort portrayed in the commercial--doctors, for instance--recommended the product.

Commercials in which actors portray doctors would be considered “on a case-by-case” basis, Dzodin said.

Before-and-after diet photos, he said, would be allowed if the advertiser provided proof of its claims, including evidence that “the plan was safe and reasonable, and the weight-loss was representative.”

Likely to be the most controversial of ABC’s proposals are those involving celebrities in ads aimed at children.


Dzodin argued that children today are more sophisticated about sales pitches.

But Peggy Charren, president of the consumer group Action for Children’s Television, blasted the idea.

“There should be no sports hero or rock hero endorsing a children’s product to children,” Charren said. “Children can’t separate a sales pitch from a real-life situation. Seeing a hero using a product means to them that ‘my friend wants me to have this product.’ ”

A spokesman at NBC said that network is also revising and updating some of its guidelines; NBC expects to have its changes in place by December.


CBS said in a statement that it already operates under guidelines similar to those contemplated by ABC. Several years ago, CBS proposed an end to the so-called white-coat rule against actors impersonating doctors, but advertisers themselves did not show much interest in changing the policy.

“If you have a real doctor in a TV commercial, he’s putting his name and reputation on the line,” said Saatchi’s Mooney. “Actors are scripted and have less credibility.”