In the latest salvo in the battle over liquor and beer advertising, a new commercial this week encourages people to feel free to have a drink before driving home.
The spot, part of a larger effort from the American Beverage Licensees and the American Beverage Institute, is a counterattack to what alcohol retailers say are increasingly strident campaigns against drinking and driving.
Creeping Prohibition can be seen, retailers say, in a shift from early slogans like "Don't Drive Drunk" to more recent zero-tolerance messages like "None for the Road" and "You Drink and Drive. You Lose."
"These overly conservative messages tell responsible Americans that they're wrong in going out and having a glass of beer, a glass of wine or a cocktail at dinner, or at a sports venue, and driving home," said Paul Avery, president of the Outback Steakhouse restaurant chain and the American Beverage Institute. "We're just trying to protect ourselves."
Mr. Avery said he admired the success of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other advocacy groups as well as state and federal authorities in curtailing drunken driving. But they now view alcohol itself as their target, he said.
And public perception seems to be shifting toward zero tolerance for drivers who have had anything at all to drink.
Strong agreement with zero tolerance rose to 48 percent in 2001 from 43 percent in 1991, according to national surveys conducted by the Gallup Organization for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
While some industry experts sharply questioned whether anything like Prohibition would return to the United States, they said that the industry was clearly worried about its image.
The commercial that ran nationally this week puts on a brave face, making toasts to adults seen clinking glasses in restaurants and bars. "Here's to places where they remember your name," the voice-over says, in an apparent reference to the theme song from the sitcom "Cheers." "Here's to the millions of Americans who, every day of the week, enjoy an evening out with close friends and adult beverages."
The spot closes with the "Drink Responsibly, Drive Responsibly" logo over a busy highway at night. Its sponsors estimate 10 million viewers saw it on CNN and Fox News during its initial run.
As part of the larger campaign, two dozen restaurant chains, including Applebee's, Buca di Beppo, Chevys Fresh Mex, Chili's, Hooters and Outback Steakhouse already display the "Drink Responsibly, Drive Responsibly" logo or print it on their menus. Some liquor suppliers likewise use it in ads or on their Web sites.
"People are finding different ways to get this message out," said Rick Berman, partner at Berman & Company in Washington, which made the commercial as part of its consulting and communications work for the American Beverage Licensees and the American Beverage Institute. "Which I'm hoping literally crowds out this `don't drink and drive' message, which is not legally, socially or scientifically accurate."
"Otherwise, there are these money-driven agenda groups that will literally change the culture in this country without there being any legitimate reason for having done so."
Executives at Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which is frequently accused by the alcohol retailers' groups of going too far, said that their campaigns had nothing to do with prohibiting responsible drinking.
"These are scare tactics, actually, by the alcohol industry," said Wendy Hamilton, president of MADD, based in Irving, Tex. "We never tell anyone over 21 not to drink alcohol."
MADD does recommend designating a sober driver among a group, because alcohol impairs good decision making about driving, she said.
While pressure on the alcohol industry exists, it is not a significant threat, said K. Austin Kerr, professor of history at Ohio State University in Columbus, who has studied Prohibition.
"There is a movement that comes largely out of health professionals who see the negative side of alcohol abuse who would like to see marketing restrictions," he said. "They have had virtually no success."
And whether some groups would like to see less alcohol consumption, "prohibition" is too strong a word, he said.
"Personally, as a historian of Prohibition, I see nothing in American society in the 21st century that is in any way comparable to what we saw 100 years ago."
Posted on aef.com: April 24, 2003
Nat Ives, The New York Times - April 17, 2003
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