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Remarks of
FCC Commissioner Susan Ness
before the
American Advertising Federation
National Governmental Affairs Conference

March 25, 1999

"Speaking Clearly and Succinctly..."

(As prepared for delivery)

I am happy to welcome you all to Washington for your annual governmental affairs conference.

In Washington, it is always a challenge to make sure you are communicating effectively -- some words get garbled in translation. "Targeted revenue enhancements" become "tax hikes," "Medicare reform" is interpreted as a "benefit reduction."

But even skilled advertising and marketing professionals are not immune from slip-ups in translation.

In Taiwan, the translation of the Pepsi slogan "Come alive with the Pepsi Generation" meant "Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead."

When General Motors introduced the Chevy Nova in South America, it was apparently unaware that "no va" means "it won't go." After the company figured out why it wasn't selling any cars, it renamed the car in its Spanish markets the "Caribe."

Ford had a similar problem in Brazil when the Pinto flopped. The company found out that Pinto was Brazilian slang for "tiny male genitals." Ford pried all the nameplates off and substituted Corcel, which means horse.

When Parker Pen marketed a ballpoint pen in Mexico, its ads were supposed to say "It won't leak in your pocket and embarrass you." Instead the ads said that "It wont leak in your pocket and make you pregnant."

An American T-shirt maker in Miami printed shirts for the Spanish market which promoted the Pope's visit. Instead of the desired "I Saw the Pope" in Spanish, the shirts proclaimed "I Saw the Potato."

With these examples in mind, I would like to speak clearly and succinctly today about three current topics of interest to you in the advertising industry: 1) The government's role in content regulation; 2) non-discriminatory buying practices; and 3) the future of advertising.

The Government's Role in Content Regulation

I take seriously the First Amendment prohibition against rules that impair freedom of speech, and believe the government must tread extremely carefully in this area. In addition to the Constitutional safeguards of free speech and press, the Communications Act has long included a specific ban on censorship of broadcasting. Such limitations on government are reasonable and appropriate because they give meaning to the operation of a free and unfettered media. I often think of Senator Inouye's closing remarks at my confirmation hearing in 1994. He observed, "There are very powerful nations that have television programs with no violence, with no sex, but they do not have a constitution either."

The law is clear that government regulation of content is consistent with the First Amendment where there is a compelling interest, and then, only so long as the government action is the least intrusive, narrowly tailored means to achieve that goal. Over the last several years, the courts have gradually expanded the traditional first amendment protections to commercial speech. This expansion is entirely appropriate because advertising provides important information about products and services.

There are, of course, some content regulations that have been upheld by the courts. Statutes on indecency, children's television, and political broadcasting are examples of narrowly-drawn content-based restrictions that have passed Constitutional muster.

In the area of children's television, the Commission shored up our rules implementing the Children's Television Act of 1990, which requires broadcasters to serve the educational and informational needs of children. In the last year and a half, we have seen a great new crop of quality programs that both educate and entertain.

Stations and networks have picked the shows they think meet the Commission's beefed up definition of "educational programming." So what still needs to happen? Marketing! That means the shows need to be promoted on air and the newspapers and listing services need to help by highlighting the educational label in their daily and weekly TV listings. I have talked with the newspaper publishers association about ways to prominently feature lists of family-friendly programs -- sponsored by family-friendly advertisers. For example, at the 10 a.m. Saturday spot in the listings, an advertiser could sponsor a box highlighting all of the E/I shows available at that time. Or perhaps the newspaper or listing service could make a special pull out page with all of the educational offerings -- suitable for putting up on the refrigerator. It's another advertising opportunity with a family-friendly message.

There are some wonderful shows out there -- shows that deserve every opportunity to succeed -- and I hope you in the advertising community will take advantage of the opportunity to be part of their success.

Non-discriminatory Buying Patterns

I know the AAF is well aware of our recent study on patterns of discrimination in broadcast advertising and you have enthusiastically responded to Chairman Kennard's call to action. The study looked at whether advertisers intentionally avoid certain minority-oriented formats

-- like urban or Spanish radio. The report found some evidence that advertisers steer dollars away from stations that target minority listeners but noted that future research would be necessary to determine the reasons for these patterns.

In my view, if the avoidance is due to stereotyped assumptions about particular groups of people -- it is reprehensible. We will not know that without further study, and in the meantime, I am very pleased that the initial report has sparked a healthy self-inspection by advertisers and their agencies.

Here is a quote -- not from the FCC -- on the subject:

"Blanket policies like 'no urban and no Spanish dictates' do a disservice to everyone involved, from the advertisers who lose sales opportunities to the consumers whose needs may be underserved. We urge advertisers and agencies to make decisions based on facts and not fiction. We urge them to value the contributions people of color can make to their bottom lines."

These are the words of none other than Wally Snyder and the AAF. I couldn't have said it better myself.

I also commend the AAF for your leadership efforts to increase minority employment in advertising. A workforce that truly reflects the diversity of our country should help advertisers be more sensitive to whether dollars are being used to discriminate. And your organization should also be applauded for participating next week in a significant workshop to help marketers adjust to minorities' increasing share of the consumer market. These and other efforts by industry are sure to yield positive results as old assumptions are swept away by factual information about the buying power of various segments of society.

The Future of Advertising

My comments today wouldn't be complete without a look to the future -- particularly the Internet and digital television. It is surprising to see how many people can misinterpret some of the FCC's decisions involving the telecommunications networks over which the Internet rides. We have a continuing role to regulate the terms and conditions of certain parts of what are commonly thought of as "telephone networks." I'd like to take this opportunity to answer any questions about the desire or intention of the Commission to "regulate the Internet." The answer to that question is "No." The long answer is "Hell, no!"

But there may be a need for consumer protection as millions of people venture into e-commerce each year. This has been, and should continue to be, the bailiwick of the Federal Trade Commission and other consumer protection offices. I recently heard Chairman Robert Pitofsky describe the FTC's efforts to stop consumer rip-offs springing up on the Internet. Chairman Pitofsky's view is that it is important to prosecute a few key cases by way of example, in order to tame some of the "Wild West" out of the growing number of snake oil sales offerings. I'm sure my friend, FTC Commissioner Sheila Anthony, will have more to say to you on that topic.

The Internet is such a wonderful tool for consumers -- and you, who must stay very close to consumers, know that it is a wonderful tool for advertisers. Millions of dollars have already been spent to find out that marketing on the Internet may be unlike anything you've ever done before. New, creative ways to convey useful information about products and services are being tried. Advertisers are finding this new medium irresistible.

Another new medium on the rise is digital television. I'm not sure that broadcasters themselves have realized the seismic shift in the world of television. It's true that digital television has been available through Direct Broadcast Satellite providers for the last four or five years, and cable operators are upgrading their facilities to provide digital, interactive service. As is often the case, however, I believe it will be up to the advertisers to creatively explore the full potential of the digital bitstream. Our digital television transmission standard is flexible enough to allow embedded information to go along with a main program source. It is thought that advertisers may want to layer information related to the product in the digital bitstream, or use it for couponing and special offers.


The role of advertising in American media is not fully appreciated. I hardly need to tell you that the 65 billion dollars forecast to be spent in 1999 on radio, television, and cable network advertising fund the production of news, entertainment, and public affairs programs that we value so highly. It is clear that we have a rich mix of media in this country because of the effectiveness of consumer advertising. I hope that you will let your advertising dollars speak clearly and succinctly to support quality educational programming for children; to reflect the growing importance of minority audiences in your non-discriminatory buying practices; and to spur new and innovative technologies for the American consumer.

Thank you.