BETHLEHEM, PA. — By almost any Madison Avenue standard, the commercial is a success. The jingle, "Tap the Rockies," is so catchy the six television viewers here are singing along. They know the words. They know the product - Coors Lite beer. The only problem is that the viewers are 11- and 12-year-old girls at a birthday party. "It's on all the time," explains 11-year-old Hadley Cameron.
Ads like these are raising questions about their effect on children. Do they lead underage drinkers to imbibe? Does it mean anything if a child can recognize a beer logo?
Critics of the alcohol industry believe there are links between advertising and teenage alcoholism - a major societal problem. The alcohol industry argues that ads don't make kids drink - the causes are more often peer pressure and parental practices.
The debate symbolizes how the controversy is moving to a new battlefront - children - similar to what has occurred with the tobacco industry. Behind the dispute lie fundamental questions about the psychology of selling and First Amendment rights.
Last month, the Federal Trade Commission, which has a mandate to monitor ads for fairness and decency, began investigating Stroh Brewing Company to see whether its malt liquor ads target underage viewers. It's also looking at the marketing and advertising practices of the distiller Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, which flouted a voluntary liquor industry ban on TV and radio advertising earlier this year. The rest of the industry followed, renouncing the voluntary restraint and drawing considerable political fire.
President Clinton called the move "irresponsible," and Reed Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), urged TV stations to reject the ads. The agency, which oversees TV station licensing, will begin a broad inquiry next year into liquor ads and the possibility of regulatory restrictions. Both the House and the Senate expect to hold hearings in January.
In the face of this barrage of criticism, both liquor and beer companies have been quick to deny they target underage drinkers or influence them. "We absolutely do not market our beer products to people under the age of 21," says Stroh spokeswoman Lacey Logan.
In fact, on Dec. 23, Anheuser-Busch announced it would pull its ads from MTV and shift them to VH1, which has a slightly older audience.
But the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) has come out fighting, charging that Mr. Hundt is close to violating antitrust laws by asking stations to reject liquor ads. "The current FCC chairman may have forgotten about the First Amendment," DISCUS president Fred Meister recently said at a luncheon meeting.
Coors spokesman Jon Goldman says his brewery's "Tap the Rockies" ads target adults only. "It would be a waste of our money if we didn't," he says.
Even Madison Avenue is feeling the pressure. Long a champion of free-speech rights, the ad industry has begun discussing a proposal from the American Association of Advertising Agencies, a trade group, about adopting limits on alcohol and tobacco advertising.
There is no question that alcohol abuse is a problem for teens. According to a 1995 survey by the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependency, 25.3 percent of eighth-graders surveyed had been drunk, and 54.5 percent said they had consumed alcohol.
But making the link between advertising and underage drinking is a more difficult matter, despite numerous studies. "It depends on who is interpreting the data," says Charles Atkins, who conducted the last extensive FTC study on the subject in 1985. "I think the impact of alcohol advertising on underage drinking is probably small, but still significant."
For example, how do you measure the impact of Absolut vodka ads on Beth Gadomski? Beth, 17, has covered an entire wall of her bedroom with 150 Absolut vodka ads. Her brother gives her Absolut bottles from a recycling bin. Her mother gave her a book on how the clever ads are produced. The teenager denies the ads influence her - she just likes the artwork.
Former Sen. George McGovern, a spokesman for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc., says he's convinced advertising has an impact on kids. "They advertise in prime time during the athletic events that kids watch," says the South Dakota Democrat, who advocates a counter-advertising campaign, funded by a tax on the industry.
Still, a 1993-1995 government-funded study of 12- to 18-year-olds found that advertising during televised sports did not make beer ads more effective. More important was the content of the commercials themselves.
"We found that, especially with boys, if the ad had more sports content, they responded more positively," says Michael Slater, author of the study and an assistant professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. It also found that more than 40 percent of the participants thought at least one of the people in the ads was under 21.
A survey by the government-funded Prevention Research Center, based in Berkeley, Calif., has concluded that ads are a "statistically significant" factor in influencing teens to drink - but a relatively low one compared with peer pressure or parental drinking. "It's one piece of the puzzle that appears to be a contributing factor," says senior researcher Joel Grube.
Mr. Goldman of Coors dismisses the Prevention Center's peer-reviewed study, saying it "has nothing to do with science; it's public relations. They just don't like any alcohol advertising at all."
Another study by the Berkeley, Calif.-based Center on Alcohol Advertising found advertising enhances children's brand awareness - representing about 20 percent of the way kids decide what they will drink.
Last spring, the center did a survey of kids age 9 to 11 that found Anheuser-Busch's animated Budweiser frogs were more recognized than Smokey the Bear or Tony the Tiger.
Only Bugs Bunny had better recognition among well-known cartoon characters.