Beer companies pledge not to aim their message at underage drinkers, but on Super Bowl Sunday, they hit the target anyway.
The yearly Adbowl poll, in which participants rate Super Bowl ads online during the game, breaks down voting by age and other demographic measures. In the category of voters under the age of 17, Bud Light ads ranked first, second and fourth in popularity. A Budweiser ad won third.
Adbowl, which began in 2002, had about 500 participants this year, according to Steve McKee, president of McKee Wallwork Cleveland, an advertising agency in Albuquerque that developed the poll. Mr. McKee's agency, by the way, shuns alcohol industry clients under a "do no harm" policy.
Still, he pointed out that the beer ads were popular with adults also. "I'm not saying one way or another that beer companies target kids, but to infer that they're targeting kids simply because kids like their commercials is a giant leap."
But critics of the alcohol industry are not so sanguine. Amon Rappaport, a spokesman for the Marin Institute, an industry watchdog based in California, objected to an Anheuser-Busch Super Bowl ad in which a young Clydesdale pulls its first wooden beer cart. "Using a baby Clydesdale to sell beer to kids is just like using Joe Camel to sell cigarettes," Mr. Rappaport said.
In a written response, Francine I. Katz, a vice president of Anheuser-Busch, which brews Budweiser, Michelob and other brands, cited Nielsen Media Research indicating that 89 percent of Super Bowl viewers were 21 or older, while the median viewer age was 43. "Based on those numbers, it's simply ridiculous to suggest that underage people are the intended audience for these ads," Ms. Katz said.
In a study published in The Journal of Health Communication in 2005, "Alcohol Advertising: What Makes It Attractive to Youth?", 10- to 17-year-olds rated 16 beer commercials. Their three favorites — two for Budweiser, one for Bud Light — featured animals.
A 1996 study by the Center on Alcohol Advertising in Berkeley, Calif., found that Budweiser's talking frogs were even more familiar to children aged 9 to 11 than Tony the Tiger, Smokey Bear and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
Mr. Rappaport would like beer ads to go the way of cigarette commercials. "As a society we recognize that tobacco advertising has no place on TV where kids will see it, but somehow we still allow beer ads," he said. "Without beer advertising on TV, underage drinking would drop significantly."
George Hacker, director of the alcohol policies project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, faults Anheuser-Busch not just for its ads but also for its sponsorships. He called the company's decision to sponsor the United States Olympic ski team "tone deaf," especially after one team member, Bode Miller, said on "60 Minutes" that he occasionally raced while under the influence of alcohol.
More insidious, Mr. Hacker said, is that the brewer is the official malt beverage sponsor of the Olympic snowboarding team. According to a 2004 Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association study, the average age of a snowboarder in the United States is 19.6, more than a year below the legal drinking age. Among the 16 members of the snowboarding team, 6 are underage.
Andrew Adam Newman, The New York Times. February 13, 2006
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