Statement of George A. Hacker
July 16, 2002
Last year, the Center for Science in the Public Interest released research that demonstrated the massive popularity and appeal among teenagers of a growing new category of alcoholic beverages -- "malternatives," or "alcopops." Kids reported that they liked the soda-pop taste that disguises the alcohol, and they told us how those starter brews made it easy for them to take up drinking. Since that time, the pressure on young people to drink has increased dramatically.
Television advertising for "alcopops" has exploded and, according to trade sources, may reach as much as $450 million this year. Diageo, the world's largest liquor marketer, has plans to spend $1 billion advertising hard liquor on television over the next five years, through its own "unwired" network. That means that advertising for booze on TV may double within a year, virtually assuring that underage consumers get a steady dose of alcohol promotions.
Advertising for hard liquor products on network television may have come and gone -- for now -- when NBC pulled the plug on Diageo's plans to compete with beer on the airwaves. Such ads, and those of other liquor producers, however, still appear on hundreds of independent and cable stations all over the country, and the heavy investment in them is just beginning.
Even if liquor products are not advertised on network television, hard liquor brands get feature billing. Smirnoff Ice, Stolichaya Citrona, Skyy Blue, Captain Morgan Gold, Sauza Diablo, Bacardi Silver, and soon to come, Jack Daniel's Hard Cola. They may be malt beverages, but they trumpet the liquor brand. These soda-pop brews not only make it easy for teenagers to start drinking. They point the way to what to drink next. Liquor. With these drinks, the hard stuff beckons.
As one beverage-industry insider put it last week in The New York Times, "These drinks are able to steal and capitalize on the sexy image of hard liquor." The data we collected show that teenagers think ads for these "alcopops" are ads for liquor; and millions of teens are watching TV when those ads run.
When NBC and Diageo tried to run liquor ads onto network television, they told us that they would "clearly and unambiguously" direct them to adult consumers. NBC's code claimed to be the toughest in the business! Beer and liquor industry guidelines are weaker still: They merely restrict ads to audiences composed "primarily" of adults.
Twenty-two million teenagers -- some 77 percent of all 12- to 18-year-olds in the U.S. (we didn't even count kids under 12 or between 19 and 20) watch television after 9 p.m. when booze ads routinely grace the airwaves. Current voluntary advertising standards to protect children are a hoax; a public relations joke on regulators and Members of Congress. Rather than protect young people, they put millions of teenagers in the crosshairs for exposure to ads for liquor, beer, and the new liquor-branded "alcopops."
Millions of teenagers pay attention to "alcopop" ads and as a result have become surprisingly aware of liquor brands that have been advertised on television only a matter of months. This new youth awareness of liquor brands must be music to the ears of marketers who sell vodka, rum, and tequila.
Booze marketers are getting through to teenagers and may be creating a whole new generation of liquor drinkers. Industry voluntary standards protect the industry's profits, not America's kids. Despite various guidelines that limit the percentage of underage people in the audience for booze ads, because of U.S. population demographics, there’s almost no nighttime show that's off limits to booze ads.
Something can be done. And even small steps would help. It's time for the booze industry and broadcasters to clean up their acts and set rational and effective voluntary advertising standards that really make booze advertising "for adults only." It's time for broadcasters to stop allowing booze marketers to sneak their liquor brands onto network television, disguised as "soda-pop beers," in blatant circumvention of their policies on hard liquor ads. And it's time for Congress to open its eyes to marketing practices that aim to hook the next generation on liquor, as well as beer.
Congress should take a hard look at the current explosion of actual and de facto liquor advertising on television that threatens our children with a crescendo of messages encouraging them to drink. NBC's decision last March was hardly the death knell for liquor ads on TV. We call on Congress to schedule hearings on the promotion of liquor in youth-oriented media.
A tidal wave of ads for liquor is headed for our kids. The last thing they need is even more persuasion than they now get about the pleasures and rewards of drinking.
Center for Science in the Public Interest
Alcohol Policies Project
1220 L St. NW, Suite 300
Washington, DC 20005
Phone: 202-332-9110 * Fax: 202-265-4954 * Web: www.cspinet.org/booze