ADVERTISING: Geritol's Bitter Pill

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The J.B. Williams Co., maker of Geritol, last week got handed a dose of bitter medicine. After an entanglement that had dragged on for 13 years, a federal court prescribed an $812,000 penalty against the company for having flouted a Federal Trade Commission order to stop advertising its product as a surefire pick-me-up for people with "tired blood." The penalty is the biggest by far ever imposed for such a violation. The Williams Co. had first been ordered to expunge such claims in 1967, but as late as 1969, shortly before the FTC took the matter to court, oldtime Announcer Ted Mack was on the tube urging: "Take Geritol. It builds iron power in your blood fast."

The FTC has long argued that some Geritol claims were deceptive because the vast majority of people who suffer from vague listless feelings would not be helped by the product. FTC investigations of Geritol began in 1959, but have been stalled in the regulatory mill and the courts ever since. The marathon case ranks second only to the FTC's 16-year effort to get Carter Products, Inc. to stop misleading advertising that claimed its Carter's Little Liver Pills could overcome lethargy and even the blues.

After the case reached the court level, Geritol's manufacturer, a subsidiary of Nabisco, eventually changed its advertising to a pitch aimed primarily at middle-aged women. Though the FTC has received some complaints about the more recent ads as well, it so far has not acted against them. Whether or not the newer messages have offended the Government, however, they have drawn spirited criticism from women. In one commercial a husband, after reciting his attractive spouse's achievements, intones: "My wife. I think I'll keep her." The Williams Co. might be well advised to note that the judge, prosecutor and FTC lawyer in last week's action were all women.