Daily advertising policy debated

Open any issue of The Minnesota Daily and you’ll see advertising. Like most newspapers, we sell advertising to support our news and editorial functions. An average issue of the Daily contains ads that run the gamut from Boynton Health Service and University Bookstores to campus bars and restaurants.
Most people don’t object to the concept of advertising as part of our mass media. However, some do object to the kinds of advertising the Daily accepts. Reader Johanna Lester is troubled by some of the advertising appearing in Daily pages.
In a Jan. 5 letter, Lester encouraged University President Mark Yudof to think about the mixed messages he was sending — giving e-mail notice of the University’s drug and alcohol policies while permitting the Daily to run advertising for alcohol. In later e-mail correspondence, she added concerns about ads for “gentleman’s clubs.”
Last quarter, the Daily ran an ad that could be redeemed for a free can of smokeless tobacco. Employees and students of the School of Public Health wrote to complain — some even alleging that the Daily had violated the law in running the ad.
Lester and the School of Public Health raise important points. The Daily should have policies in place and be responsible about the ads we take.
First, I need to make clear one very important fact: The business and editorial staffs of the Daily are independent of each other. We do this so advertising concerns don’t affect the news. Editorial staffers do not control what ads are run and where.
The advertising acceptance policy, from Daily Business Manager Adam Duey, contains limitations on the kinds of ads we accept and properties of some of those ads. For example, we won’t accept ads for fireworks, because such ads are illegal in Minnesota, and we won’t advertise lotteries from outside the state.
The alcohol advertising guidelines are not very complex. An ad offering a free drink cannot have strings attached to redeem the offer, there can’t be children or things associated with children in alcohol ads and alcohol can’t be portrayed as a medicine. All alcohol advertising must also adhere to state and federal laws.
The tobacco guidelines are even briefer. Again, ads must adhere to the laws, and the Surgeon General’s warning must accompany ads from manufacturers of tobacco products.
As for sexual content in advertising, ads containing “breasts or genitals, pornographic poses, explicit sexual references or anyone under or appearing under 18 years of age” will not be run. There are also guidelines about images of women — are they portrayed as subservient to men, is there a threat of violence, etc.?
Professor Bill Babcock, who teaches media ethics at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said that he would not run these kinds of ads in a student newspaper. “Not only are a number of our audience members underage,” he said, “but we are publishing for a university community, where we should aspire to the very best — in our news space, in our commentary and in the ads that we choose to run.”
The other side of the argument is that a newspaper ought not be paternalistic to its readers. It takes the ads that are appropriate under its policies and assumes that the readership is mature and knowledgeable enough to decide whether to consume the products.
And, the argument might continue, the fact that there are underage readers in the audience should not matter any more than does the fact that there are underage readers of the Star Tribune, the Pioneer Press, USA TODAY or any other newspaper or magazine that carries advertising. The media simply cannot cater to the most vulnerable consumer, as long as the products advertised are legal.
Although I applaud Johanna Lester’s willingness to take on the issue, her solution — asking Yudof to control the advertising featured in the Daily — is clearly unacceptable. The Daily would view any regulation as an attempt at control by a government entity and fight it tooth and nail. And probably win. As Duey put it, “It would be comparable to Yudof telling Village Wok that they can’t serve fried rice because some students or faculty don’t like it.”
An admittedly non-scientific review of the Daily’s ads over the last week reveals no blatant violation of the advertising acceptance policy. There are invariably several ads for bars that include drink specials or offers of free drinks, and an occasional tobacco ad.
Do these kinds of ads contribute to drinking and smoking problems? Lester says yes. Why not accept more ads for food, music, clothing?
But what about advertising for a bar that also serves food? If students go to a restaurant like Sally’s for lunch, they can also buy a beer. Should we ban those ads, too?
These are hard lines to draw. I had some discomfort when the Daily ran the ad for a free can of smokeless tobacco. But I don’t feel the same discomfort when a bar offers a free drink. Maybe those are just my personal preferences showing, or maybe it’s indicative of a larger problem.
And what if, as Daily Opinions Editor Jerry Flattum suggested to me, he were business manager and a sex club offered to pour thousands of dollars into advertising — enough to buy the Daily new computers and raise employee salaries? As he put it, “I’d have a tough time sleeping the night if I had to make that decision.”
I always tell my ethics students that although it’s illuminating to ruminate endlessly about ethical conundrums, there is a need to make a decision. Right now, I’d have to say that while I think the Daily does pretty well with its current advertising policies, Lester does have an excellent point. Maybe we need to get more creative and start steering away from alcohol and tobacco ads. What do you think? Write and let me know.

Genelle Belmas’ column appears every other Friday. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 627-4070 ext. 3282.