Cheers and Jeers on 'Alcopop' Ads

Two studies offer conflicting views of marketing to underage consumers

That "alcopop" bottle, depending on who's looking at it, is either half full or half empty. Last week, two reports offered differing views on how the industry is doing in its efforts to avoid marketing flavored malt beverages to underage drinkers.

The Federal Trade Commission concluded that alcohol marketers' efforts at self-regulation have improved significantly over the past four years.

But the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a report saying the industry could do much better.

The FTC report was a response to a Congressional mandate earlier this year to study the impact of the alcohol industry's marketing blitz on underage drinkers. The commission also was ordered to assess industry improvements (or lack thereof) in its self-regulatory efforts to limit the general appeal and exposure of alcohol marketing to underage consumers. The FTC had strongly urged the industry to consider such efforts in a report issued in 1999.

In its study released last week, the FTC found "no evidence" that advertisers of flavored malt beverages (also known as "malternatives") target underage consumers. The study also concluded that alcohol marketers have significantly improved self-regulation, implementing regulations suggested in FTC's 1999 report.

Not surprisingly, that conclusion is welcomed by Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute. "We are encouraged that the FTC recognizes that brewers plan and execute their advertising and marketing campaigns in a responsible manner," he says

The FTC report is based on a study of the marketing and advertising of nine major brands. The commission found improvement in placement standards and in the adoption of external review. Although the report found that the alcohol marketers were not targeting underage drinkers, it did concede that the advertising "may have a 'spillover' effect on teens, because themes that appeal to younger, of-age consumers also appeal to underage consumers."

The report was issued in response to hearings presided over by vocal alcohol-ad critic Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.).

Wolf, joined by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), have pushed for stricter controls on alcopop ads.

George Hacker, director of CSPI's Alcohol Policies Project, says the study misses the point. "We think it is irrelevant what the industry intends," he says, pointing to the "spillover" concession. The study, he complains, pats alcohol producers on the back for meeting a "puny" 50% placement target—in which at least 50% of the audience for an alcohol ad is over 21—while conceding that the ads reach a substantial number of young people, with themes attractive to minors.

The study's big weakness, Hacker adds, is that "it goes no further than to parrot the industry's own submission. There is precious little independent analysis."

The NAS proposed a number of steps to help remedy the situation, including the establishment of a government-funded ad campaign aimed at persuading adults to do more to curb underage drinking. Funding was also proposed for the Department of Health and Human Services to monitor underage exposure to alcohol advertising "on a continuing basis and to report periodically to Congress and the public."

Separate funding was recommended by the NAS so that the DHHS could periodically monitor TV content that is broadcast "at times and or in venues likely to have a significant youth audience [15% or more] to ascertain the nature and frequency of images pertaining to alcohol."

The NAS also called on the alcohol industry to fund a non-profit foundation "with the sole mission of preventing and reducing underage drinking."

Hacker cited the NAS approach as a "roadmap" to policies and programs to combat underage drinking.

But the Beer Institute's Becker considers the NAS off base. NAS's call for more government funding for various programs, he says, is "woefully misguided," particularly at a time when the state and federal governments are looking for ways to cut costs and balance budgets.

"At the same time," he adds, "we are encouraged to see positive attention paid to many of the effective, targeted and sensible approaches—such as increasing parental involvement and consistent enforcement of existing underage drinking laws—that the beer industry supports. These approaches have been the focus of the extensive educational programs to prevent illegal underage drinking the industry has implemented for 20 years in communities nationwide."