Washington coalition mounts offensive to limit ads for alcohol

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.

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.

One sponsor is Congressman Don Edwards (D) of California, who sent a letter to beer manufacturers asking them to ''voluntarily take their beer commercials off television as a way to stop the national tragedy of alcohol abuse among American teen-agers.''

The coalition has claimed two separate victories in keeping hard-liquor ads off the airwaves. Its organized letter-writing campaigns, according to coalition leaders, pressured the M. S. Walker Company, producers of Cossack Vodka, and Hawkeye Distillers, maker of M*A*S*H Vodka, to take their ads off radio. In the case of Hawkeye Distillers, which bought the rights to use the name of the popular television show, six members of the cast of ''M*A*S*H,'' after being contacted by the coalition, spoke out publicly against the ads.

Paul Shuman, marketing director of M. S. Walker's Somerville, Mass., headquarters, acknowledged receiving letters sent by CSPI and the group Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) to ban Cossack Vodka radio ads. Shuman responds, however, ''I feel strongly that the letters are an infringement on our right of advertising.'' He contends they played no part in his decision to keep the product off the air.

While the anti-advertising forces are trying to drum up broader support for their position, the alcoholic beverage manufacturers are not sitting idly by. Bill Bowdren, chief administrator of the Miller Brewing Company's New England regional office, said it has its own lobbyists working on the county, state, and national levels to influence legislation helpful to the industry.

Mr. Bowdren contends that tighter regulations on advertising would inhibit the business's right to free trade, which would lower sales and jeopardize employment. He contends that the industry is doing a good job in self-monitoring its advertising and in developing public-service ads advising people to use its product wisely and in moderation.

George Hacker of CSPI disagrees. He counters that the voluntary guidelines set up by the industry's own US Brewers Association (USBA) to promote responsible advertising have been violated repeatedly when manufacturers link beer with adventurous sports activities in ads. Hacker also asserts that the USBA guidelines are essentially meaningless, on grounds they are unenforceable, and suggests that the few public-service ads the industry has produced are of poor quality - usually done in black and white - and broadcast very late at night.

Although they acknowledge the threat from the anti-advertising forces to be real, the industry has not been able to mount an allied effort to oppose it. With the Miller and G.Heileman Brewing Company's withdrawal from the USBA over policy disputes, industry leaders are finding it difficult to fight back as one group.

The coalition itself also has to deal with problems of its own. Member organizations, for the most part, face financial and staffing restraints that make it difficult for them to spend extensive amounts of time and resources on the ban-on-advertising project.

Prospects for favorable FTC action on the coalition's petition seem slim for the short term. In a letter to US Rep. James J. Florio (D) of New Jersey, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation, and Tourism, which oversees the FTC, James Miller, FTC chairman, writes that ''No major investigation is warranted'' into the advertising practices of the alcohol industry.

Mr. Florio says that ''the antiregulatory and pro-business bias of the FTC goes without saying. With the three Reagan appointees which make up a majority on the FTC, that agency is ultimately redefining the law to remove and cushion the impact of regulations on business.''

He charges that the FTC has no intention of enforcing the unfairness-in-advertising mandate in its charter.

No congressional action on this issue has been proposed.

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