Thursday, January 20, 2011

Better Business Bureau in the Age of Mad Men

I'm beginning to think the writers of Mad Men have forgotten about us. I've watched all four seasons with more interest than most because I'm the Ad-Review specialist for the Better Business Bureau. I pour through advertising copy every single day to figure out which advertisements violate our Code of Advertising. On Black Friday last year, I bought the first three seasons on Blu Ray and have been soaking up the special features.  I've already noticed the conspicuous lack of BBB in the show (not one mention in four seasons) but I was even more surprised that the audio commentaries from the creators, writers, cast and directors don't mention the BBB. I bring it up because the BBB was the most influential presence in the advertising industry during the 1960s--especially on Madison Avenue.

Every character on that show would have been intimately familiar our Code of Advertising. The senior partner, Cooper, would most likely have had a hand in the Better Business Bureau's origins. Any firm founded in 1923 was almost certainly involved in the truth in advertising movement that spawned the Better Business Bureaus.

The first episode focuses on a Lucky Strike ad campaign in the wake of a Reader's Digest article that first laid the blame of lung cancer at the tobacco industry's feet. At the time, Lucky Strike was owned by American Tobacco Company, who was the target of a Better Business Bureau campaign to improve the veracity of cigarette advertising in 1930. Actually the first Reader's Digest article to accuse cigarettes of causing cancer was published in December of 1952 and the Better Business Bureau was among the first to pick up on it. In a letter from February 1953, the BBB wrote the following passage to one tobacco company:

"Although cigarette advertising, as such, has been widely and justly criticized in recent years, we believe that your current advertising represents a particularly flagrant disregard of the public interest. Your advertising will not only deceive some members of the public to the detriment of their health but it will, in addition, tend to impair the integrity of advertising and lessen public confidence in it." - Taken from Pulitzer Prize finalist The Cigarette Century by Allan Brandt.

The BBB vigorously pursued false cigarette claims for the next 18 years until its efforts culminated in the creation of the National Advertising Review Board, an alliance between advertising groups (like the protagonists of Mad Men) and the Better Business Bureau, which reviewed 1,900 cigarette advertisements over ten years. According to Kent Middleton and William Lee's article Advertising Myths, the review board forced "the revision or discontinuation of campaigns in 42 percent of the cases."

One of Don Draper's clients, Kodak, was a company that founded the Council of Better Business Bureaus in 1971 (although we had to throw them out in 2007 for not answering their complaints). Gillette, who manufactured Right Guard, was a supporter of the Better Business Bureau since the 1920s. They were bought in 2004 by Procter & Gamble, a BBB member since 1928. A rival company to the protagonists, BBDO Worldwide, who wrangled away one of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Price's biggest clients, has been a member of the Better Business Bureau since 1959. All of their advertisements must meet the BBB Code of Advertising (When they don't, the company they advertise for is investigated by our National Advertising Division). At the time, the National Better Business Bureau (NBBB) was located in the Chrysler Building in New York, NY., just two blocks over from Madison Avenue where "Mad Men" got their name. During the time that Mad Men takes place, the BBB was mentioned in seven articles in Time Magazine. Reader's Digest articles encouraged its audience to check the reliability of companies with the BBB (1965 vol. 84, 85)

Mad Men occasionally mentions the Federal Trade Commission's advertising regulations. In May of 1961, at the annual BBB convention, the FTC Chairman gave a speech that urged businesses to adhere to the BBB's self-regulation process. Whenever the show references the FTC crackdown on false testimonials, it doesn't mention that also in 1961, the NBBB called for honesty in testimonials, "condemning phony testimonials as a deceptive practice which lowers the standards of advertising to those of a charlatan."  The issue started in Mad Men's back yard when Mickey Mantle endorsed a milk he didn't drink.

The BBB Code of Advertising wasn't something to be taken lightly, either.  Most companies took it seriously and heeded our advice. Some didn't and ended up on the receiving end of government action or found themselves in losing court battles.  In the early sixties, for the first time, the BBB Code of Advertising was admitted as evidence in a New York Supreme Court case in a motion to stop an automobile dealer's false advertising. By 1962, the Mad Men should have been very keen to abide by our Code if they wanted to avoid unnecessary legal issues.

The staggering impact Better Business Bureaus had on the advertising industry during the sixties is so obvious that it caused me to speculate why Mad Men never mentions us. Perhaps it is because we are known for guarding our trademarked name. It seems to be the primary reason the writers of the recent horror film Devil changed our name to just "Business Bureau." However, the The Office felt no need to change our name. I kept expecting one of the main characters in Mad Men, Sterling, to express the utmost hatred for our interfering ways because we would get in the way of him making money by slightly misleading people here and there. It never came up :(

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