Louie, Look What You Started

YEARS before television sets were as common as pigeons in a city, I watched a flickering TV screen on summer nights in the window of an appliance store in Duarte, California. Back then Duarte was a small town along Route 66 on the way out of Los Angeles heading East. I was the only scruffy kid in a rowdy group of neighborhood retirees sitting on folding chairs; some of the men drank wine and beer, others were just relishing what is now called ``male bonding.'' They liked me. I liked being there.

On the screen, baseball games were the attraction. But next to the television set, behind the window, was a hint of something sinister. There was a life-sized ad, a dashing cardboard figure of a grinning man in a tuxedo with his arm around a huge, brown bottle of whisky. The men in the folding chairs called him ``Louie.''

In my mind's eye, long after the memories of the baseball games have faded, and now some 40 years later, I can still see the image of that huge bottle and Louie's grin.

This is important to me (and you) because the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reported late last year that 180 boys and girls from ages 7 to 12, living in Washington and suburban Maryland, could name alcoholic beverages more readily than they could name American Presidents.

In the CSPI survey, a ten-year-old girl remembered the names of only four presidents, but had no trouble recalling 14 alcoholic products. An eleven-year-old boy knew eight brands of beer, and three presidents. And a seven-year-old boy named 10 beer brands, wine coolers, and liquors. He knew six presidents, including ``Aprilham Linchon.''

Fortunately, the brand name on Louie's huge whisky bottle now plastered in my memory goes unremembered.

But I saw Louie long before most kids between the ages of 2 and 18 were subjected to an estimated 100,000 television commercials for beer. In my boyhood, the kind of incredibly quick, smooth, and seductive TV ads slamming into kids today were just in their infancy.

Because of television ads, kids know the brand names, sing the TV jingles, and know advertising's carefully chosen phrases such as ``tastes great'' or ``less filling.'' The result of advertising's indiscriminate power is that many kids sing the jingles and then go the next step: They drink the stuff.

Kids, not teen-agers. Very little kids drink the stuff.

According to the American Council for Drug Education, at least 100,000 elementary school children get drunk on a weekly basis in the United States. Recently in New York, 16 percent of the students in a statewide survey said they had tasted some kind of liquor before reaching the age of nine.

And the venerable My Weekly Reader reports in a survey that 80 percent of seventh- through 12th-graders said that their friends drink wine coolers.

So, years ago in a more avuncular time, there I stood, in front of an appliance store, in front of a television set which was not more sophisticated than a Model A Ford. And Louie was there too, waiting. Television, alcohol, and Louie went on to strike a sinister compact. They agreed that Louie had to shed his tuxedo, wear jeans and a T-shirt, hold a can of beer or a wine cooler, exude happiness and a funky style while he and his friends looked cool and danced to rock music. They hoped it would take 30 seconds or less to catch the eye of youth, to beguile vast numbers of them.

Louie, you can't imagine how well it worked. Or maybe you can.

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