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What you can do if an ad crosses the line

If you see false, misleading, or distasteful advertising, what should you do? 1.``The best thing to do is to send letters to the network [or local station, or both] and the NAD,'' says Thomas J. McGrew, a noted advertising attorney with Arnold & Porter, Washington, D.C. The networks pay attention to public opinion. The ABC network gets some 500 letters or phone calls a year relating to ads. ``Ninety-five percent are concerned about personal-product ads,'' says Harvey Dzodin, ABC's ad clearance chief. As a result, the networks have maintained strict guidelines on personal-product ads.

The NAD is the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus Inc. It's a self-policing group set up by the ad industry in 1971. Last year, the NAD staff of 10 sifted through about 200 complaints. Some 100 cases were adjudicated. The private review process - typically taking six months - involves studying the ads, substantiating claims, and if they are found to be false, getting the advertisers to change the message or stop using it.

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Compliance with NAD findings is voluntary, but the group claims 100 percent cooperation.

Most observers say the NAD is effective. ``I've been impressed by what they've done,'' says Ivan Preston, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who worked at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 1979. ``There's always reason to be suspicious of self-regulation, but I think the advertisers are pretty sincere about making this work.'' 2.After letters to your local station, the network, and NAD, ``the second best thing to do is to send one to the state attorney general's office,'' says Mr. McGrew. Another advertising lawyer warns: ``Not every state has tight false-advertising laws, and relatively few states have attorneys general taking an interest in advertising.'' But the attorneys general in New York, California, Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Florida have been among the most active in cracking down on false advertising. 3.A letter to the FTC, says McGrew, would be the third course of action. The FTC has not been as active in pursuing national advertisers during the Reagan years. As a result, Congress is likely to take another look at a proposal to amend the FTC Act to give state attorneys general more power to pursue deceptive-ad cases. The FTC, however, has been vigilant in cracking down on some forms of health-care fraud, ads promoting professionals (lawyers, optometrists, funeral directors), and mail-order advertising.

If these methods don't get results, McGrew suggests bringing a class-action suit against the advertiser.

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