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The hazards of slogans and logos in public radio donor announcements

National Federation of Community Broadcasters conferenceI spent the morning at the National Federation of Community Broadcasters conference here in San Francisco. First stop: a panel on the dos-and-don’ts of underwriting acknowledgements. Expert attorney Michael Berg spoke on the subject, and offered a very nice advisory handout on slogans and logos, from which I draw the following wisdom.

Bottom line: the Federal Communications Commission’s rules on underwriting announcements seek to protect the noncommercial quality of noncommercial educational (NCE) broadcasting. Thus such spots can “identify” and “describe” the underwriter and its products, but they can’t “promote” them. The FCC expects NCE stations to make “good faith judgements” in these regards.

So legal details include the donor’s name, contact information, brands and names of its products and services, and “historical information about the donor’s operations (such as how long they’ve been in business).” But data about pricing, “calls to action,” “inducements to buy,” or language comparing the donor’s products to the rest of the market is out of bounds.

How does this relate to logos? As long as they “identify but do not promote,” they are permissible. Thus the FCC found acceptable an A.G. Edwards slogan noting that the outfit provides “exceptional service.” Ditto for “GE, We Bring Good Things to Life.”

But, Berg adds:

“While ‘Sun America, because it’s not just your retirement, it’s your future,’ was found acceptable as an established corporate slogan in isolation . . . when prefaced with a ‘call to action’ for potential investors (‘many Americans haven’t saved enough to enjoy [retirement]. That’s why there’s Sun America . . . ‘), the message was unacceptably promotional.”

Similarly, the slogan “If you haven’t shopped Beds Unlimited, you’re not saving money,” was declared a no no, because the underwriting acknowledgement preceded it with details about the business location and a layaway service.

Same goes for “The hottest prices are at MLT” or “MLT offers you easy credit.” The pricing information nixed these sayings in the eyes of the FCC. And a slogan like “the longest continuous builder in Northeast Florida” ran afoul of the Commission’s prohibition of “comparative” and “qualitative” references.

In the past I’ve characterized the FCC’s underwriting rules as pretty easy to follow. Now I’m not so sure. All this complexity could be end-run by an adequate level of funding for public broadcasting, of course.

In any event, “slogans can be an important factor,” Berg writes, “sometimes the deciding one, in FCC review of on-air NCE donor announcements.” Keep a record of your announcements, he advises station managers, and why you decided a logo or slogan was acceptable. You may need it if the FCC comes knocking at your door.



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