Alcohol Advertising: Are Our Kids Collateral or Intended Targets?
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George A. Hacker
Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free Conference
January 10, 2002

Alcohol marketers say they have voluntary standards that prevent them from targeting consumers younger than the legal purchase age. They claim to avoid pitches that primarily appeal to teenagers and to pass up ad placements that reach an audience that is predominantly underage. Yet, we are told, when one reaches 21, former teens become potentially valuable alcohol consumers and legitimate targets for aggressive promotions to drink. The sad reality is that people under 21 are also in industry’s cross-hairs; whether they’re the intended targets is a matter of debate. The result, however, is the same. Millions of underage persons regularly absorb hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising for booze. Those messages weave through all media and countless marketing arenas; they mirror youth culture and relate directly to the interests, motivations, and aspirations of young people.

Much has been said about the content of ads; about their use of animals, cartoons, humor, music, athletics, and themes of belonging and friendship. Obviously, those elements catch the fancy of young people. One need only recall the Bud frogs and lizards, Spuds MacKenzie, and Whassup space-alien dogs to recognize the prominence of beer advertising in youth culture.

Strangely, those commercials comply with beer industry and broadcasters’ advertising codes and meet (essentially meaningless) federal requirements. The Beer Institute’s Voluntary Advertising Code asks whether the ads appeal primarily to underage people. Whether they reach an audience that is mostly under the age of 21. That’s some standard when merely 30% of the population is under 21, and barely 16% – [likely among the viewers of the shows sponsored by brewers] – is aged 10 to 20? In 1999, even the Federal Trade Commission questioned the adequacy of those guidelines, suggesting that they be strengthened. No answer yet from the beer industry, which mistakenly interpreted that report as awarding brewers a gold star for responsibility.

Recently, as a sop for accepting liquor ads after 50 years of restraint, NBC set a voluntary standard requiring that the ads run after 9 p.m. and audiences for those ads be at least 85% adult. Without suggesting an absolute limit on the number of underage persons in the audience, that’s hardly an improvement. This week, Advertising Age magazine reported that all but one prime time show on NBC met that standard. Think about this possibility: an NBC show watched by everyone in America over the age of 10. Nearly every single 10- to 19-year-old could be watching and that show would still meet the guideline. Obviously, rules such as these don’t so much protect our children as serve them up to alcoholic-beverage advertisers such as Smirnoff Vodka. [For example, some 20% to 25% of the mammoth audience for the Super Bowl – the yearly showcase for funny, provocative, trend-setting, youth-oriented beer ads – is younger than 21. Those more than 30 million young people watching comprise as many as 40% of all the people under 21 in America.]

NBC’s new "responsible" advertising standards, which apply to liquor products only, don’t go far enough. And who knows how long they’ll even last. Once liquor producers gain enough economic clout over NBC and other TV networks to demand the same treatment as beer, they’re likely to erode or disappear entirely. Once those standards go, we shouldn’t be surprised to see broadcast versions of liquor ads that now appear in youth-oriented magazines, such as Vibe, Spin, and Rolling Stone. Already, Jack Daniels whiskey is pushing for commercial time on NFL football, and Smirnoff Ice, a liquor-branded malt beverage, has its sights set on the Super Bowl. Last week, the Bacardi bat symbol formed the prominent backdrop for the rap half-time show at the Orange Bowl, where much of the collegiate audience (both in the stadium and at home) must have been underage. 

Television provides but one example of industry’s cavalier or deliberate targeting of young people. The United States Ski and Snowboard Association holds competitions all over the country; many of its members – and many of the contestants – are teenagers. Yet, this Vermont event last year provided a staging center for Captain Morgan and his Seagram rum. A look-alike was there glad-handing youngsters, and his likeness – in the form of a 10-foot tall inflatable – was out on the race course; the contestants wore official Captain Morgan bibs. Until an outraged mother complained, the USSA’s website also prominently featured the Captain and the product’s logo; that site, a prime source of race information, attracts thousands of underage competitors and sports fans.

Lisa Leslie, Olympian and professional basketball player and 2001 Sportswoman of the Year, is a clear draw for young people. No one doubts that Nike seeks young consumers and therefore invests in the WNBA; shouldn’t we question though when Anheuser-Busch, whose Bud Light beer sponsors the league and hires Ms. Leslie to appear in its ads, does the same?

Beer companies plaster their names wherever sports audiences are found, and aim to take center stage as well: judging by the team’s uniforms, you wouldn’t know that San Diego’s indoor professional soccer team is called the Sockers. Or, here at DC’s MCI Arena, you wouldn’t know that beer and children don’t mix.

NBC, which will broadcast the upcoming Utah winter Olympic games, recently revitalized its on-air promotions, adding a techno beat and a blitz of images: crashing skiers, somersaulting freestylers, and careening hockey players, in an effort to appeal to today’s high-tech, media savvy, stimulation-saturated youth. Extreme sports have been added to the games to broaden the audience and bolster the important youth market, including 18- to 21-year-olds. NBC said it wanted to talk to younger fans "as best we could." Anheuser-Busch, a prime sponsor of the games and a prominent advertiser during the events, will also be talking to the same crowd, as best it can.

NBC president and chief operating officer for the Olympics, Randy Falco (who also presided over NBC’s December decision to take liquor ads) says "[the] Winter Games in particular are really all about speed, all about edge. It’s really perfect for a younger demographic."

Booze marketers also appeal to young people by developing familiar, sweet-tasting products. That’s happening now in the "alcopop" market, where brewers are falling over themselves – and falling in with liquor companies too – to roll out hard lemonades and other fruit-flavored concoctions that resemble familiar soft drinks – in taste and often in look – more than they do alcoholic beverages. Kids tell us that they go down easy and help introduce young people to other alcoholic drinks. National polls that we conducted last April found that teenagers know about "alcopops" a lot more than adults do, and they actually use them more.

Industry data, too, reflect the significant participation of underage users among consumers: Mintel International, as reported by Super Market Research, estimates that "nearly one-quarter of people age 19 to 20 drink coolers including spirits-based pre-mixed beverages, accounting for 7 percent of all cooler drinkers." And they’re not even counting a lot of 15- to 18-year-olds! Mintel’s calculation also fails to acknowledge that underage drinkers probably consume more than their proportional share of the products. Quite possibly, teenagers down some 10% of all the "alcopops" sold, if not more.

Policy makers accept as dogma the allegations that the tobacco industry reaches and targets young people. And, even though the scientific evidence is no more conclusive than that for the effects of alcohol ads, we accept as an article of faith that tobacco ads entice young people to take up smoking and keep on puffing. Why then does industry’s argument – that advertising promotes brand identification and choice but does not encourage or increase alcohol use – get so much credit? In its propaganda, industry denies the effects of alcohol ads on young people, stressing the inconclusiveness of studies and citing dated edicts from the Federal Trade Commission and other studies from free-market oriented researchers.

The reality is different. The most recent pronouncements of the FTC on the effects of advertising support common sense. In its 1999 report on the booze industry’s voluntary advertising standards, the FTC determined (as had previous Chairman Janet Steiger in her 1991 testimony to Congress) that the inconclusive nature of the studies "does not rule out the existence of a clinically important effect of advertising on youth drinking decisions."

As recently as last June, the United States Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts ban on billboard advertising for tobacco products, but reaffirmed what common sense tells us about advertising. In ruling that the state met its burden of providing sufficient evidence of the relationship between tobacco advertising and smoking, the Court upheld its long-standing acknowledgment that product advertising stimulates demand and the absence of it suppresses it. Are we to believe that billboard advertising for tobacco products affects children, but frogs, lizards, party scenes, and humor in television ads for beer are impotent to do the same?

When it comes to assessing whether industry promotions, including advertising, influence our children to drink, we should trust our eyes and ears and our understanding of the effects of multi-million dollar advertising budgets. Whether alcohol producers intentionally target 15- and 16- year-olds is irrelevant. That they reach them with the most sophisticated means and the most seductive messages creates enough of a problem. We owe it to our children and to the public health and safety of America to challenge such marketing activities, [if we have any hope of actualizing our goal to keep children alcohol free]. Likewise, we owe it to our children to work together to implement a National Media Campaign to Prevent Underage Drinking, so that alcohol is no longer ignored as the number-one health and safety risk for young people.

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