Advertisers Adopt a Truth-in-Advertising Code

The adoption of a code of ethics by the Associated Advertising Clubs of America served to encourage other organizations to adhere to similar high standards.

Summary of Event

Recognition of advertising as a viable means of widespread communication came around the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Industrial Revolution gave rise to the need to promote the abundant manufactured goods then being produced, and advertising as a profession developed in response to this need. As the profession grew into an industry, advertising practitioners became concerned about the maintenance of high business standards. Advertising professionals saw the need to join together to protect and promote their trade. Across the United States, advertisers formed local organizations to uphold industry standards. The aims of these associations were primarily education and self-regulation. Advertising;ethics
Truth in advertising
Associated Advertising Clubs of America
[kw]Advertisers Adopt a Truth-in-Advertising Code (Aug., 1913)
[kw]Truth-in-Advertising Code, Advertisers Adopt a (Aug., 1913)[Truth in Advertising Code, Advertisers Adopt a (Aug., 1913)]
[kw]Code, Advertisers Adopt a Truth-in-Advertising (Aug., 1913)
Truth in advertising
Associated Advertising Clubs of America
[g]United States;Aug., 1913: Advertisers Adopt a Truth-in-Advertising Code[03430]
[c]Marketing and advertising;Aug., 1913: Advertisers Adopt a Truth-in-Advertising Code[03430]
Sherley, Joseph Swagar
Mann, James Robert
Moore, Joseph Hampton

The formal adoption of a truth-in-advertising code by the Associated Advertising Clubs of America (AACA) in 1913 was prompted by the passage in 1912 of the Sherley Amendment to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Pure Food and Drug Act (1906);Sherley Amendment The significance of this amendment is best understood in the context of the original act, the purpose of which was to prevent the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated, misbranded, or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors. The act was also intended to regulate traffic in foods, drugs, and medicine.

Public distrust in exaggerated advertising claims such as these for an alleged painkiller contributed to the decision of commercial advertisers to adopt a truth-in-advertising code.

(Library of Congress)

In section 8 of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, the term “misbranded” applied to all drugs, articles of food, and individual contents as well as packages or labels that bore any statement, design, or device regarding the ingredients or contents. The term “misbranded” also referred to any imitation or substitution. An item would be identified as misbranded if its label failed to state the quantity or proportion it contained of any alcohol, morphine, opium, cocaine, heroin, alpha- or beta-eucaine, chloroform, cannabis indica, chloral hydrate, or acetanilide, or any derivative or preparation of such substances. In addition, if a package did not list the proper weight and measure of the contents, it was considered to be misbranded. A package could not be false or misleading in any way. Section 8 of the act further stated that ingredients could not be imitations of or substitutes for the stated contents.

Congressional debate concerning amendment of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act took place on August 19, 1912. Congressman Joseph Hampton Moore of Pennsylvania suggested that one more addition be made to Congressman Joseph Swagar Sherley’s proposed amendment regarding statements of contents in packages. He noted that in the case of nostrums and patent medicines, statements in regard to ingredients and therapeutic properties usually appeared on the inside of the covers of the packages or bottles. Congressman James Robert Mann of Illinois stated that the effect of the Sherley Amendment would not be to keep drugs off the market but to keep sellers from making false claims about the curative powers of those drugs.

The Sherley Amendment to section 8 of the Pure Food and Drug Act was approved on August 23, 1912. The amendment contained a clause stating that no package should make false or fraudulent claims pertaining to the curative or therapeutic effects of the package’s contents. A further amendment, approved on March 3, 1913, stated that reasonable variations would be allowed in regard to weight, measure, and numerical count.

In August, 1913, the Associated Advertising Clubs of America published “A Business Creed.” “Business Creed, A” (Associated Advertising Clubs of America)[Business Creed, A] This document stated the AACA’s belief in the need for continued and persistent education of the press and public in regard to fraudulent advertising. It further stated that each and every member of the AACA owed a duty to the association to enforce a code of morals based on truth in advertising as well as truth and integrity in all functions pertaining to the creed. The AACA creed also endorsed the work of the National Vigilance Committee, a group similar to a commission created by the member clubs of the AACA, in its attempts to educate the press and public in regard to fraudulent advertising. The creed encouraged every advertising interest to commit to a code of morals that included truth in advertising.


Following on the heels of the Sherley Amendment, the AACA’s adoption of a truth-in-advertising creed was a timely attempt to promote the organization’s credibility. Up to that period, the advertising that appeared in magazines and other media contained much material of dubious truth. One result of this was that businesses suffered from mistrust on the part of the buying public. Buyers often were disappointed after being taken in by false claims, some of which carried the potential for harm, such as when advertisers made claims that products could cure diseases. The public was tired of throwing money away on false hopes, and this attitude was bad for business, as the members of the AACA well knew.

At the time “A Business Creed” was published, few businesses or business associations in the United States had in place any formal codes of conduct of the kind represented by the AACA document, although many people had endeavored to encourage business leaders to conduct their business activities in an ethical manner, arguing that by doing so they could also improve their profitability. The AACA’s action in adopting the creed encouraged other businesses to adopt their own codes of ethics.

In 1911, two years before “A Business Creed” appeared, the Advertising Federation of America Advertising Federation of America had formed a national vigilance committee and launched the truth-in-advertising movement, a forerunner to the establishment of the Better Business Bureaus. The Advertising Association of the West entered the movement a year later. These groups worked in cooperation with each other over the years, and in 1962 they held a joint convention to discuss a merger that became a reality in 1967. The new group, headquartered in Washington, D.C., was named the American Advertising Federation (AAF). The AAF is dedicated to serving its members by promoting, protecting, and advancing advertising interests, including the freedom to advertise all legal products. The organization’s actions and goals are based in large part on the AACA creed.

The functions of the AAF include professional development, public education to promote awareness and understanding of how advertising contributes to the economy and society, the fostering of high standards of ethical conduct (including truth in advertising), encouragement of the use of the advertising process for the public good, and recognition of excellence in advertising. The AAF also opposes bans or restrictions on truthful, nondeceptive advertisements for any legal products or services. It therefore opposes existing bans and restrictions on advertising for tobacco products and alcoholic beverages.

The principle of truth in advertising has evolved to cover a variety of applications. In the United States, for example, the advertising of some consumer goods falls under the scrutiny of the federal Food and Drug Administration. Vitamin supplements and herbal remedies are among the types of products at which the Pure Food and Drug Act was originally aimed. Today, most of these products comply with truth-in-advertising standards to the extent that no claims are made on the labels other than warnings about possible adverse reactions. Consumers must get information about the benefits of these products from other sources.

While technically adhering to truth-in-advertising codes, advertisers sometimes use visual images and slogans that do not strictly “tell the truth” about products. The Marlboro Man, for example, portrayed to impressionable audiences the idea that smoking is an activity common among tough, masculine men. Another example is the slogan “Be young, be happy, drink Pepsi.” It does not directly state that by drinking Pepsi a person can become young and happy, but the suggestion is there. The use of young models in advertisements for wrinkle cream provides another kind of example. The implication of such ads is that use of the products will make anyone look as young as the models.

Consumer advocates criticize advertisers for using such misleading images and slogans, and they also note that sometimes packaging claims are truthful but leave out important facts. Some food packages, for example, display claims of fewer calories when the simple fact is that the calorie reduction comes from the reduced amount of food in the container.

By the end of the twentieth century, truth-in-advertising codes and laws had been extended to cover many service and business sectors in the United States. Today federal agencies, consumer advocates, and advertising professionals continue to keep watch to ensure that businesses adhere to the principle of truth in advertising. Advertising;ethics
Truth in advertising
Associated Advertising Clubs of America

Further Reading

  • Associated Advertising Clubs of America. “A Business Creed.” The World’s Work, August, 1913, 384. This is the original published version of the AACA creed, which the organization adopted in an effort to hold business and advertising to a high ethical standard.
  • Goodwin, Lorine Swainston. The Pure Food, Drink, and Drug Crusaders, 1879-1914. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1999. Survey of the history of lobbyists and elected officials who fought for legislation to guarantee pure food, drink, and drugs.
  • Hilts, Philip J. Protecting America’s Health: The FDA, Business, and One Hundred Years of Regulation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Documents the history of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from its establishment during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Emphasizes the FDA’s regulatory role and its battles against entrenched business interests.
  • Reid, Margaret G. Consumers and the Market. New York: F. S. Crofts, 1938. A summary of the problems that faced consumers in the early years of the twentieth century in areas such as labeling, product quality, advertising, and price setting. Includes specific examples and historical references.
  • Sullivan, Mark. “The Crusade for Pure Food.” In America Finding Herself. Vol. 2 in Our Times: The United States, 1900-1925. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927. An account of the personalities and controversies that led to the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. Sullivan consulted with many of the people involved in passage of the law.
  • Young, James Harvey. Pure Food: Securing the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. An authority on the history of medical misconduct presents a study of the evolution of the Food and Drug Administration and development of the Pure Food and Drug Act.

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