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
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
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
|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
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.
here for additional information on alcohol advertising.