Cigarette-sponsored survey: way around ban on TV ads?

''The Merit Report'' - it's either a ''public service'' or ''a way of trying to dupe the public,'' depending on your point of view. Either way, a growing debate over the nature of the new public opinion survey launched by the Philip Morris tobacco company could bring a lot of attention to the name of Merit cigarettes.

Massachusetts Group Against Smoking Pollution (GASP) member Tony Benis charges the survey is ''a clever way to get around the 1970 congressional ban on tobacco advertising on TV,'' since Merit could get television coverage each time results are released.

''We want the Merit Report to make as much of a contribution as Roper (Organization) or the other polls,'' says survey head and former network television reporter Nancy Dickerson, in town for the first day of a six-day Boston survey. ''My preferences on smoking don't have much to do with it. . . . I think this is newsworthy.'' As chairman of the Merit Editorial Board, she assists the research firm Audits & Surveys, Inc., in drafting questions based on suggestions from the media in various cities.

The Merit Report, under Mrs. Dickerson's guidance, conducts surveys via random telephone calls and traveling Merit Opinion Centers, 30-foot, computer-equipped trailers parked in major cities to gather responses from passersby.

Every other week, the Merit Report asks 10 questions covering international, domestic, and ''life style'' issues. Questions on an October poll included: ''With the death of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, to what extent do you feel the chances of a lasting peace in the Middle East have increased or decreased?'' to ''Do you think professional sports would or would not benefit from using video replay to ensure accurate calls by officials?'' and ''In your opinion, which one of the following best describes your weight: very overweight, slightly overweight, just right, slightly underweight . . . ?''

The survey rolled into Boston Nov. 2 to a less-than-warm welcome from the Massachusetts GASP, which was protesting what it calls the company's attempt to ''use the media to sell cigarettes.''

As program manager for Warner-Amex Cable Television in Boston, Mr. Benis was approached by the Merit Report to have Dickerson appear on a talk show.

''I'm outraged that Philip Morris is trying to incorporate the media into selling cigarettes,'' he says. ''They're not using advertising - which you pay for - they're using the media. They're asking me to run an ad for cigarettes, which is illegal as far as I'm concerned.''

When Merit Report representatives contacted ''4Today,'' a morning talk show on local TV station WBZ, they didn't mention that it was sponsored by Merit cigarettes, according to Associate Producer Karen Stathopolos. She says she decided not to schedule Dickerson because of scheduling difficulties and other reasons, but ''when we found out it was a sneaky advertisement for a cigarette company, that made it even more unattractive.''

The promotional package ''does say somewhere, quietly, that it's sponsored by Merit cigarettes, . . . but it's certainly not splashed all over the place,'' she says.

''Clearly it's a product promotion,'' says Merit Report spokewoman Cathy Leiber, ''but it's not advertising . . . because television can choose to use it or not.''

Mayor Kevin H. White was invited to the press conference to be the first Bostonian to take the survey, but Deputy Mayor Kathy Kane attended instead, explaining that the mayor was busy with ''budget problems.'' Mayors in other major cities where the survey was launched have been criticized as endorsing the survey and Merit cigarettes.

Citing a 1978 Roper survey which ranked cigarette manufacturers second to last among industries thought to be concerned about their consumers, Benis says the Merit Report ''masks true public opinion,'' because it asks no questions concerning cigarettes or smoking.

The Merit Report's Boston public relations director Beryl Sanford says that type of question will not be asked because ''we don't want to jeopardize the legitimacy of the test.''

When asked why Philip Morris chose to develop a nationwide survey instead of other promotional techniques, Ms. Sanford said, ''The Merit Report compliments the image of Merit cigarettes.''

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