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    Radio ads are a real problem

    The advantage of television is that it can show without the need for words. If no one speaks on the radio, the silence rapidly grows boring. So, by definition, radio is more explicit than television. What may be shown in a way minimizing the potential for giving offense, is more difficult to present using words. Even when the speakers use similes and metaphors rather than explicit language, it's always far more obvious what they are talking about. If we go back a few years, the seconds-long viewing of Janet Jackson's nipple resulted in a half-million dollar fine for Viacon. This was part of a more general move by the FCC to run what became known as an indecency campaign. The FCC became very active in fining any companies who, whether accidentally or deliberately, breach its code of morality. The reaction from television companies was self-imposed censorship. Despite the First Amendment, the FCC chilled free speech deemed indecent, profane or obscene, particularly if the content could be heard by children.

    This confirms the perhaps surprising view that the FCC can regulate content even if it is not obscene. Congress has created safe harbor times for radio when "anything goes" but, during the rest of the time, the FCC regulations apply to protect the interests of children who may often be listening to radio at home without the active supervision of their parents. Curiously cable and satellite radio are exempted from this more general regulatory control.

    This leaves the ordinary radio stations in difficulty because the FDA has a general regulation dictating the content of drug ads. In particular, it requires the manufacturer to give fairly explicit warnings of what precautions people should take and whether there's a risk of side effects. This listing is actually quite explicit. On television, the marketers get around the problem by scrolling the words in small print rather quickly at the end of the ads. On the radio, however, someone has to speak the words clearly and slowly enough to be understood. Failure to do so means a breach of the FDA regulation. Worse the FDA has refused to change the regulation or to allow modification of the warnings. This means every ad for erectile dysfunction drugs on the radio runs the risk of being considered a breach of the FCC regulations if the ad runs outside the safe harbor time.

    All this difficulty comes in trying to strike a balance between the interests of parents with young children and adults who are interested to hear content describing drugs important to them. Faced with sexual problems, the majority of American men decide to buy Viagra. The reason for this behavior is the constant reinforcement of the brand name. If the marketers are to do their work properly, all the airways should be able to get the message across to men with a need to buy Viagra. The pharmaceutical industry and radio broadcasters therefore risk fines to keep the message coming. Never forget. If in doubt, buy Viagra!

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