Keep ads honest

AT a time when modern communications techniques have made advertising more pervasive than ever, it seems shortsighted to loosen federal regulations that protect consumers from deceptive claims.

Now, a number of congressional lawmakers, legal experts, and consumer groups believe that may well be happening. The Federal Trade Commission is making a number of major changes in its policies designed to control false advertising. The FTC argues that the changes will enable the agency to more selectively target firms and industries that actually engage in false advertising.

Critics, however, believe that the policy changes could work against consumers and in effect allow spurious ads to run, while making it more difficult for states to bring legal action against false advertising.

Critics of the changes include the National Association of Attorneys General. Their objections should be carefully considered by Congress.

Two issues are involved here:

* Substantiation. The FTC is planning to end the agency practice requiring businesswide substantiation of advertising claims made about products.

In the past, all industries and major firms have been required to substantiate advertising claims. Now, instead of requiring industrywide substantiation, the FTC will target certain firms or industries in which it feels deception has occurred or may be occurring. But it plans to end its practice of businesswide monitoring of advertising claims.

* Deception. As noted, under the standard that has guided the agency for many years, FTC action could be brought against a manufacturer or advertiser if advertising on a product was found to be deceptive.

But under a new FTC policy, for a practice to be challenged as deceptive, it will now have to be shown that a reasonable person was likely to be deceived by an ad, and that damage had occurred - not just that the claim itself was false.

The National Association of Attorneys General, for its part, is opposed to codifying into law the proposed reasonable-person test, since it would be difficult to establish how a ''reasonable person'' might react to a particular advertisement. Rather, the association favors following the existing case law on false advertising.

One cannot fault the FTC for wanting to use its financial and investigative resources in the most efficient manner. Still, the public has the right to be protected from false advertising. That is the role that has been entrusted to the FTC. That role needs to be reaffirmed.

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