No Happy Hour for Alcohol Ads

New study urges FTC to review beer, liquor TV marketing

Claiming that viewers under the legal drinking age were exposed to almost as many alcohol commercials on TV as adults are, Georgetown University's Center on Alcohol Marketing & Youth (CAMY) has asked the Federal Trade Commission to review the advertising and marketing practices of the alcoholic-beverages industry.

What's more, they said the beer and liquor industry's self-imposed rules about advertising are a sham.

CAMY's study and FTC request came just one week after the American Medical Association called for broadcasters to ban alcoholic-beverage commercials on their airwaves before 10 p.m. (B&C, Dec. 16).

At stake: Close to $1 billion that the industry spends advertising those beverages to TV viewers each year.

The big problem for broadcasters, of course, is that much of the $800 million-plus in beer advertising is placed in sports advertising that airs on weekend afternoons.

CAMY's FTC petition was based on a study it issued two weeks ago claiming that, in 2001, viewers under the legal drinking age were more likely to see commercials for beer than for sneakers, gum, chips or jeans.

The study, analyzing almost 210,000 alcohol commercials that ran on cable- and broadcast-network TV last year, found that, with almost 25% of them, viewers under the age of 21 were more likely to have seen them than viewers of legal drinking age. (For the purposes of the study, the legal drinking age is assumed to be 21.)

The AMA said its proposal was based on new research indicating that under-age drinkers can suffer brain damage because the brain is still developing until a person's mid twenties.

Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said the industry's self-imposed guidelines on alcohol-ad placement aren't cutting it. The general guideline from the beer and the liquor industry's Distilled Spirits Council is that commercials should not be placed in programs where viewers under 21 account for 50% or more of the audience.

"The industry's guidelines are so permissive that, in practice, they amount to no limits at all," said Kessler, currently dean of the Yale University School of Medicine and an adviser to CAMY.

According to CAMY's analysis of Nielsen Media Research data, only 1% of all broadcast- and cable-network shows that ran in 2001 had an under-the-legal-age-limit audience composition of 50% or greater. "This study shows that no one is protecting our youth," said Kessler. "As a result, teenagers are seeing unbalanced and unrealistic messages about alcohol."

Beer advertisers took issue with the study, however. Beer Institute President Jeff Becker decried efforts to make alcohol advertising the whipping boy for societal ills like underage drinking.