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Critics Say Beer Spots Exploit Loopholes

In a television commercial for Bud Light during the Super Bowl and Olympics, three men climb onto the roofs of their houses, telling their wives that they were going to clean gutters and repair satellite dishes. Instead, the men break out the Bud Light and lawn chairs. One man eventually falls through the roof and into his living room.

Anheuser-Busch, the makers of Bud Light, says the ad was a spoof.

Critics said that the commercial sent a dangerous message that it was fun to drink on rooftops and that the ad violated the beer industry's advertising and marketing standards, which stipulate that ads "should not portray beer drinking before or during activities, which for safety reasons, require a high degree of alertness or coordination."

Gone are the days of bikini-clad women and mud wrestling, but beer advertising still draw lots of criticism. Several consumer groups say that the voluntary standards set up by the Beer Institute, an industry trade group, are little more than a public relations ploy and do not go far enough in trying to cut down on beer ads seen by people under 21.

"The beer ad code has loopholes that are big enough to drive a team of Clydesdales through," said Laurie Leiber, director for media advocacy at the Marin Institute, an organization that keeps watch over the alcoholic beverage industry.

The Beer Institute's code was made weaker, not stronger, by changes in January, Ms. Leiber said. One loophole, she said, allows for the portrayal of illegal activity in ads as long as it "is a basic element or feature of a parody or spoof and is readily identifiable as such."

"They're writing guidelines to allow themselves to do what they've been doing all along," Ms. Leiber said. She said the parody stipulation was added in response to complaints about a Bud Light ad showing referees stealing beer and running from the police.

The Beer Institute said in a statement that it considered its standards adequate.

"Our members have maintained high standards of corporate responsibility dating back to the repeal of Prohibition," the president of the Beer Institute, Jeff Becker, said. "We have continually updated our advertising and marketing code in response to societal changes and technological advancements."

In January, the Beer Institute created an independent review panel to evaluate complaints against beer advertising. Previously, complaints went to the relevant company.

The group's code and the review panel are being watched closely as a barometer of how well the industry regulates its marketing. While the Federal Trade Commission has favored self-regulation as the best way to address the problem of underage drinking and to ensure that alcohol marketing is generally appropriate, the agency has said that it intends to review the placement of alcohol ads and to look at how companies are policing themselves.

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, which represents liquor companies, and the Wine Institute also have voluntary guidelines for advertising and marketing.

For the last two years, a committee of 28 state attorneys general has been investigating alcohol advertising as part of an effort to reduce underage drinking. While the group says it has no plans to sue the companies, many of the states represented in group were involved in lawsuits that led to a landmark $256 billion settlement in 1998 against the tobacco companies.

Steven Rowe, attorney general of Maine and co-chairman of the Youth Access to Alcohol Committee of the National Association of Attorneys General, said the self-regulatory efforts of the beer, spirits and wine companies were inadequate. He said the Beer Institute, the Distilled Spirits Council and the Wine Institute had tried to restrict underage viewing by prohibiting ads from appearing in media with no more than 30 percent of the audience under 21. This threshold, he says, should be no more than 15 percent.

"We think that the 30 percent standard exposes too many underage drinkers to ads for alcohol," Mr. Rowe said. "We know from recent research that exposure to alcohol ads among youths does increase their interest in consuming alcohol."

While liquor ads have gotten their share of criticism, consumer advocates say the beer industry has the weakest record of the three groups.

James Mosher, a director of one of the centers at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, a nonprofit research facility, recently completed a report that examined how the voluntary marketing guidelines of the industry compared with recommendations made by the Federal Trade Commission in a 1999 report and by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine report in 2003.

"Wine comes out looking the best," he said. "The spirits guidelines are No. 2 and beer fares the worst."

In 2004, the beer industry spent $815 million on television advertising, compared with $55 million by the distilled spirits industry and $16 million by winemakers, according to the Center for Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University.

Unlike complaints lodged with the Distilled Spirits Council, criticisms of beer ads are not sent directly to an independent review panel. The Beer Institute forwards complaints to the brewer and then if those making the complaints are not satisfied, they can appeal to a review panel, which has four members.

George Hacker, the director of alcohol policies project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group that is often critical of the food industry, said that he recently went through the process for his complaint against the Anheuser-Busch "Rooftop" ad, but was told by the Beer Institute that the panel could not review the ads because the process is reserved for ads that are currently running.

Showing of the "Rooftop" ad ended after the Olympics.

"That renders the whole process meaningless, given that many beer ads are designed to air for a short time only," Mr. Hacker said. "It's very convenient. When a company is caught, they can simply withdraw the ad, which then eliminates the possibility of review."

Mr. Becker of the Beer Institute said that when a company said an ad was no longer running, it meant a review was unnecessary.

"Beer ads have been on television since the 1950's," he said. "Mr. Hacker's proposal could generate a large number of complaints about ads that are no longer running, which would undermine our review board's mission to look at complaints about ads actually in the marketplace."

 

Melanie Warner, The New York Times, March 29, 2006

Copyright © 2006 The New York Times. All rights reserved.