Government Regulation of Advertising in the United States has gained more prominence all tiers and arms of government are increasing showing interest in the way goods and services are advertised. Federal, state, and city governments have all passed legislation restricting advertising in various ways in the United States. The Supreme Court of the United States has overturned some restrictions, however, ruling that advertising is protected under the free speech provisions of the First Amendment to the Constitution, although to a lesser extent than political speech. In a landmark 1976 ruling, Virginia State Board of Pharmacy v Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, the Court declared advertising to be a semi-privileged form of free expression, subject to some regulation. In the Virginia case the Supreme Court struck down a ban that prohibited pharmacists from advertising drug prices. The ruling removed bans that had applied to other professionals, such as physicians and lawyers, and enabled them to advertise their services.
In the United States the main government regulatory agency for advertising is the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC enforces a variety of consumer protection laws to eliminate ads that deceive the consumer. The FTC defines deceptive advertising as any ad containing a misrepresentation or omission harmful to the consumer. An advertisement does not have to be untrue to be deceptive. For example, ads for a certain bread product claimed that it had half as many calories per slice as its leading competitors. The advertiser failed to say, however, that each slice of its bread was also half as thick as the competitors. The ads were ruled to be deceptive.
The key to the FTC’s regulation of advertising is its power to require that advertisers substantiate the accuracy of their claims. So if advertisers say that ‘tests prove’ or ‘physicians recommend,’ they must be able to show test results or affidavits from doctors. Moreover, companies cannot misuse evidence. For example, claims that a particular brand of dog food provided all the milk protein a dog needs were ruled to be misleading because dogs do not need milk protein.
Products that can affect health receive special regulatory attention. The U.S. Congress banned cigarette advertising from radio and TV in 1971 under the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act. In 1998 the tobacco industry and the attorneys general of 46 states agreed to ban outdoor cigarette advertising and the use of cartoon characters in advertising, a practice that many thought had encouraged young people to start smoking.
Advertising directed to children has received considerable scrutiny. In 1990 Congress passed the Children’s Television Advertising Practice Act. Among other things, it set limits on the amount of advertising that could be included in children’s television programming and barred hosts of children’s shows from selling products.
State laws and enforcement bureaus impose additional regulations on certain types of advertising, particularly those involving contests. These regulations may differ from state to state. Consequently, advertisers planning a national contest through newspapers may have to prepare several different versions of an advertisement to comply with the varying laws. In some states the media are themselves regulated. For example, it is illegal in a number of states for radio and television stations to broadcast distilled-liquor advertising; outdoor billboard advertising is banned in certain other states which adds to the stringent measures adopted by government regulation of advertising in the United States.