New data proves teens tuning into booze-branded alcopop ads despite industry's self-enforced ad "standards"

America’s children are getting surprisingly high exposure to ads for a burgeoning category of liquor-branded malt beverages known as "alcopops," according to new polling data released today by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The sweet-tasting drinks trumpet the brand names of hard liquors like Bacardi, Stolichnaya, Captain Morgan’s, and Smirnoff. CSPI and other public-health advocates say that ads for those drinks not only promote alcopops, but are a back-door way for liquor companies to put their brand names in front of young audiences on network television.

While the liquor industry claims its voluntary advertising standards adequately protect kids from liquor advertising, those standards are rendered useless by the reality of kids’ television viewing patterns, according to CSPI. The polling data indicate that millions of kids are watching television when ads for alcopops are broadcast. Considering how new to the airwaves those ads are, kids’ unaided recall of ads for drinks like Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Silver is astonishingly high.

"Even if hard liquor ads aren’t running on network television, ads for Smirnoff Ice, Stolichnaya Citrona, Skyy Blue, Captain Morgan Gold, and Bacardi Silver are, and those ads put liquor brand names right in kids’ faces," said George Hacker, Director of CSPI’s Alcohol Policies Project. "Marketers position these fruity drinks as kids’ first cocktails. They’re designed to lead kids straight to the parent brands’ hard stuff."

CSPI commissioned an independent polling firm, Global Strategy Group, to survey 750 12- to 18-year olds. Among the survey’s findings:

77 percent of teens watch television after 9 p.m. on school nights during the week, and most of those lack adult supervision at least some of the time. That shows, according to CSPI, that the liquor industry’s voluntary ad guidelines allow alcopop advertising when millions of teens are certain to be watching television.

73 percent of teens have seen television ads for alcoholic beverages. 62 percent of teens reported seeing ads for Smirnoff Ice, and 40 percent reported seeing ads for Bacardi Silver. 58 percent of teens reported seeing ads for Mike’s Hard Lemonade, another alcopop that has been advertised on television for more than a year.

Liquor-industry guidelines specify that ads should target audiences that are primarily adult. But many of the programs carrying alcopop ads clearly have large youth audiences:

Smirnoff Ice, the alcopop bearing the brand name of Smirnoff vodka, and Captain Morgan Gold, the alcopop bearing the brand name of Captain Morgan Spiced Rum, have advertised on NBC’s Fear Factor.

Smirnoff Ice has also advertised on NBC’s Friends. Skyy Blue, which bears the brand name of (and similar bottle design to) Skyy Vodka, has advertised on Major League Baseball on CBS, and on National Basketball Association games on ESPN.

Stolichnaya Citrona sponsors the CBS reality show Big Brother 3 — whose contestants have swilled Citrona and another alcopop, Sauza Diablo, during the show. Sauza Diablo also advertises prominently on the Big Brother web site.

"In unguarded moments, liquor- and beer-industry insiders have confessed that these drinks are designed to appeal to young, entry-level drinkers unaccustomed to the taste of alcohol," Hacker said. "Our survey shows that kids think they’re being turned on to liquor, and not malt beverages. That must be music to the liquor industry’s ears."

"The beauty of this category is that it brings in new drinkers, people who really don’t like the taste of beer," Marlene Coulis, Anheuser-Busch’s new products director told Advertising Age. Bacardi Silver is Anheuser-Busch’s entry into the alcopop niche. According to Advertising Age, booze companies spent an estimated $77 million advertising alcopops on television in 2001. In 2002, the industry is expected to spend up to $450 million on this sector.

Some, like Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, say it’s time for Congress and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to take a second, longer look at whether the industry’s voluntary standards are adequately shielding kids from liquor advertising—or whether those "standards" are just providing a public-relations gloss for the industry’s efforts to recruit the next generation of drinkers from the ranks of America’s youth.

"Voluntary alcohol advertising standards are a bust," Blumenthal said. "More alcopop ads are reaching more kids— and resonating. If the liquor industry can't police itself—and stop persistent purposeful appeals to children—action by the FTC and Congress will be necessary."