After a wave of controversial beer commercials featuring women wrestling in wet cement and young men cavorting with full-figured twins, an alcohol industry association has developed a new vision for the advertising of beer, wine and liquor.
No, the future does not belong to full-figured triplets.
The core idea is the opposite, to promote "drinking well," a practice comparable in maturity, satisfaction and safety to exercising well or making love well, said Marcus Grant, president of the International Center for Alcohol Policies and the man who developed the plan.
The new approach, which Mr. Grant plans to propose today at a meeting of industry executives in New York, urges alcohol marketers to practice a new form of moderation. They should advertise the benefits of responsible drinking, like social interaction and simple pleasure, but scrupulously avoid depictions of raucous binge drinking and sexual innuendo.
"The notion is to say you need a culture change in the marketing department and in the agencies, so there is no longer the feeling that the right thing to do is to see how close you can get to the edge," Mr. Grant said. "It's to say this is a responsible industry, and we're not interested in pushing limits, we're interested in promoting responsible drinking."
Mr. Grant's trial balloon is partly an attempt to answer growing criticism that alcohol marketing influences too many young people. "It says we've listened to our critics," he said.
But some of those critics suspect the effort is mainly aimed at staving off increased regulation across the globe.
Since the World Health Organization called two years ago for an international review of alcohol marketing to youth, "there's a growing number of countries that are now looking at what would be the most appropriate regulatory responses," said Leanne Riley, a scientist at the organization.
The W.H.O. will release a position paper and a review of the relevant research this year. Countries including Thailand, Australia, South Africa, Spain and Ireland have begun to examine the issue on their own, and some have proposed legislation, Ms. Riley said. The Ministry of Health in in Ireland, for example, is considering measures like compulsory health warnings on alcohol advertising.
In the United States, some health groups seized on the Miller Lite women-in-cement commercial and the Coors Light campaign with twins as further proof that despite the denials, alcohol marketers aim their advertising at teenagers.
"You look at them, and it's all about the sex, attractiveness, popularity, independence, adventure, rebellion - everything an adolescent wants to be doing or is doing," said George Hacker, director for the alcohol policies project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.
David Jernigan, research director at the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University, said that the efforts by Coors and Miller to catch up with the top beer company, Anheuser-Busch, were driving their commercials well beyond innuendo.
Perhaps more important, he said, alcohol advertising is being placed in such a way that too many young people see it.
A recent study from the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth reported that nearly a quarter of the 208,909 alcohol commercials on television in 2001 were more likely to be seen by teenagers than by adults. The average young person saw 245 alcohol ads in 2001, according to the study.
"The industry has been in a position for years where nobody's watching," Mr. Jernigan said. "Our research is putting them on notice that someone is watching."
Industry executives said they had always been under scrutiny, much of it unwarranted.
"We know that we have critics, but our consumers love our ads and that for us is very, very important," said Jeff Becker, president at the Beer Institute in Washington, a trade group.
Whether young people see alcohol commercials is not relevant, Mr. Becker said. "Young people do see beer ads," he said. "Does it cause them to drink? The empirical evidence says it doesn't."
Peter H. Cressy, president and chief executive at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States in Washington, said, "Advertising, whether someone is of age or not, affects what they might choose to drink, not whether they drink." Vastly more important are parents and peers, Mr. Cressy added.
Critics of the alcohol industry agree that parents and peers are an important factor in swaying teens to drink, but say they still believe that advertising is far from blameless.
Articulating a response to such critics is one reason the International Center for Alcohol Policies was founded in 1995, and why it now counts among its backers companies that include Allied Domecq, Brown-Forman, Coors Brewing, Diageo, Foster's Group and SABMiller.
Mr. Grant would not guess how executives who hear his proposals today at the annual Impact Marketing Seminar might react, but he said he would make his presentation as a sort of challenge.
"If it's going to be effective and in some way turn back the tide of criticism that the industry is facing from a number of sources, it will have to be accepted across the industry," he said.
Posted on aef.com: March 10, 2003.
Unknown, The New York Times. March 6, 2003
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