Interview with Carla Michelotti
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Interview with Carla Michelotti

Carla, I am really pleased to get a chance to talk to you today because I know you have had a foundational role in the evolution of advertising regulation in the United States and now are working with many important groups worldwide to expand the self-regulation concept. I am hoping you can tell us a little bit about the background of this issue and how you got started in the arena of commercial speech, as well as speak to the current situation in other countries.


Every industry is regulated. In every country, there is regulation. I’ve always thought that the role of counsel within the advertising industry was to anticipate the issues and the environment for advertising and commercial communications. If you can anticipate that environment and manage and educate the people who are coming up with the ideas and who are reviewing advertising, then you can avoid the troubling waters and let the creativity flow. If you’re good at seeing around the corners—which at this point in my life, I’m able to say that I’m pretty good at it—you can foresee the likely troublesome issues and you can help navigate them.

As an agency, Leo Burnett Worldwide has had many clients that have allowed me to help navigate through lots of waters: the quick-service restaurant industry, cereals, candy, alcoholic beverage, tobacco, automobiles, and video games. Even nuclear energy. Every one of them has had some issue and an attempt to regulate. We have learned you cannot wait to react. You must understand the environment and anticipate its direction. You must say, What does the world look like for tobacco? Not for tobacco’s sake but for what restricting advertising for a legal product does potentially to freedom of speech issues. What’s going to be done? Then, as a result of this, What should we be doing now? Can we better anticipate restrictions? What kind of compliance efforts should we put in place? And we have seen restrictions move from one category to another. Thus, if we know something is happening to tobacco, should we expect it to happen to alcohol? And then, How can we be smart and ahead of the curve on food and beverage advertising?

I’ve been ringing a loud bell with the food industry at least since 1995. In fact, we were already talking about the potential debate with kids’ advertising in the 1980s because we had just come out of the ad ban issues. But the ox being gored then was tobacco. Some very smart food companies were concerned about what was happening to the tobacco industry because if they can do that to tobacco, they can do it to us. That’s what industries have to understand. If it happens to them, it could happen to us. You can look at the things that have happened to tobacco and plot it as if on a graph. That graph would also reflect the things that have happened to alcohol, such as warnings, restrictions of advertising, and measuring the age of audiences. Those are all things that now exist in the alcohol industry but happened to tobacco first.

Allegations that the advertising reached kids or teenagers have resulted in both the alcohol and tobacco industries tracking the percentage of adults in the readership of publications purchased. These are things that industry self-regulation, in anticipation of the issues, put into place. The industry embraced that preventive and pre-regulatory action, came together and said, Let’s figure out what we can do.

My professional focus on defending commercial free speech has always been from purely a free speech perspective. I never smoked; I don’t drink a lot, so it’s not about that. And no one wants kids to smoke or drink. But tobacco and alcohol advertising is about choice and brands. Several years ago, there were very serious proposals that would have banned tobacco advertising. The industry argued that advertising tobacco was about “brand switching” and not initiation of smoking, but many people could not believe all that money was...