Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Washington coalition mounts offensive to limit ads for alcohol

By Warren BlumenfeldSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 7, 1984

ON the TV screen an attractive woman is sitting in an elegantly appointed living room. Phone in hand, she confidently assures her friend that it is now the fashion to invite a man over for a drink, especially when the drink is Harvey's Bristol Cream.

Skip to next paragraph

In a newspaper ad, a group of college students seated in a classroom appears to be bored and distracted. One student is flying a paper airplane, one is chewing on a pencil, one is sleeping, and another is playing with matches. Surrounding this scene there is a bottle and a mug full of beer with the caption , ''After a real fascinating lecture, study the real taste of beer. Pabst Blue Ribbon.''

Advertisements for alcoholic beverages are a longtanding part of the American scene. Catchy jingles and snappy phrases promise power, social acceptance, wealth, happiness, and a fabulous love life to the drinker.

For many years all of this was taken in stride, but now some groups from around the country have organized to get the government to tighten its grip on such advertising.

''These new forces have learned a lot from those who were victorious in restricting cigarette ads in the 1960s,'' says Robert D. Menko, professor of marketing at the Boston University School of Business, who specializes in marketing strategies and the ethics of advertising.

Spearheading the movement is the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a private consumer-advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Last fall the institute brought together more than 25 national organizations, among them the American Medical Society on Alcoholism, Action for Children's Television, and the National Women's Health Network, to petition the Federal Trade Commission to impose severe restrictions on alcohol advertising. These organizations include consumer, women's, health, religious, and youth advocacy groups, as well as those that focus solely on the issue of drug and alcohol abuse.

According to George Hacker, CSPI's associate director for alcohol policies, these groups banded together because each sees alcohol as the No. 1 drug-abuse problem in America today. The coalition's decision to focus on advertising stems from its charges that the alcoholic beverage industry engages in unfair marketing practices. It asserts that the manufacturers have increased their spending on ads that appeal to what the coalition's leaders believe are the groups most likely to abuse alcohol: problem drinkers and young people.

Advertising Age magazine estimated the industry's ad spending increased by more than 200 percent (not accounting for inflation) between 1970 and '81. United States Brewers Association figures cite a 31 percent increase in per capita consumption of alcoholic beverages for the same period.

In a 1972 report, the Consumers Union, Washington, D.C., stated that alcohol was responsible for 55 percent of all arrests, 50 percent of all homicides, 80 percent of all suicides, and 50 to 75 percent of all auto accidents. The report also found it was increasingly the drug of choice of school-age children.

In a petition presented to the FTC last November, the CSPI coalition called for a ban on all alcohol ads on TV and radio and for a mandatory warning in print ads and on the products themselves about the dangers of alcohol abuse. The coalition also called for raising excise taxes on alcohol and restricting such promotional campaigns as company sponsorship of rock concerts, distribution of T-shirts, buttons, and caps with the name of the product printed on them, and the practice of hiring college students to serve as campus representatives of beer manufacturers.

The coalition has evolved over the last two years. It began when a small number of organizations joined to co-sign a letter to more than 80 makers of alcoholic beverages asking them to set a voluntary limit on their TV and radio advertising. The letter met with silence from the industry, yet other groups and individuals have joined the coalition effort.