Last week's strongly worded federal court decision ordering Federal Trade Commission Chairman Michael Pertschuk to keep his hands out of children's advertising on television "should . . . be a cautionary light to regulators to keep their enthusiasms and opinions within bounds," says Katherine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post.
In a speech to the Metro Washington Advertising Club, yesterday Graham said government regulation has not kept pace with public opinion.
"As in most official endeavors," Graham said, "there's a certain lag between changes in public attitudes and shifts in public policy."
"For instance>" she added. "The public has become quite sophisticated and discriminating about the limits and claims of the consumer movement. Yet the activist FTC which that movement inspired is still rolling along - or was until Chairman Pertschuk ran into U.S. District Court Judge Gerhard Gesell last week."
Judge Gesell rulled a week ago that Pertschuk had already unfairly made up his mind that a ban on certain forms of television advertising aimed at children was needed, even before an FTC investigation had begun.
Gesell said Pertschuk, a consumer activist, had effectively disqualified himself "by his use of conclusory statements of fact, his emotional use of derogatory terms and characteriations and his affirmative efforts to propogate his settled views."
Gesell's decision came in a suit brought by three national advertising industry groups and the Kelogg Co. and the Toy Manufacturers of America, who had pointed out that Pertschuk had said on many occasions that "children's advertising is inherently unfair" because youngsters are not capable mentally of understanding the commercials' intent to sell products.
Graham told the advertising industry luncheon that she was "very concerned about the FTC's general tendencies to push further and further into the realm of information and its marketing."
She cited FTC action last summer against the Los Angeles Times as "very troubling."
In that case, the FTC challenged the widespread use of volume discounts in newspaper and other media advertising rates.
The FTC alleged in a complaint filed against the Times that its advertising rate structure, which gives discounts to large advertisers, was discriminatory against smaller advertisers and anticompetitive.
The Washington Post and most other newspapers offer similar discounts, but the FTC chose the Los Angeles Times to file its test case against because it had the largest weekday circulation among nontabloid newspapers, leads all other newspapers in advertising volume, and is produced by the largest publicly held publishing company in the United States, The Times-Mirror Co.
"A dozen years ago." Graham said, "none of us would have creamed that rate cards might be subject to federal scrutiny in that way."
Although she said people still want government activism in some areas, "whether it be to safeguard health combat imflation, or regulate competition in certain fields." Graham added that "it's wise for a free society to continue to entrust a lot of judgements to the marketplace, instead of haveing them preempted by Congress and the agencies."
"The challenge," she said, "is to discipline ourselves, to maintain high professional standards, respond to public concerns, and acknowledge occasional mistakes."