Their websites feature water-balloon tossing, alien shootouts, and pinball games in the shape of beer bottles. They quiz viewers on punk- pop bands such as Blink 182. They offer downloadable screensavers with logos, customized music, and e-mails "spoken" by hamsters, donkeys, and frogs.
But there's a catch: If you're under age 21, you aren't supposed to enter, because the sites are maintained by alcohol companies.
Last week, the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at Georgetown University in Washington released a study of 74 such sites. It found that minors comprise up to 60 percent of visitors to these sites, and that there were nearly 700,000 visits by minors in the last half of 2003. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the numbers of minors visiting the sites.]
The report says that these sites not only provide games and interactive features such as custom music videos, but are easily accessible by minors. "Barriers really are a false hope when it comes to restricting underage youth access," says Jim O'Hara of CAMY. "Anyone can type in a birth date of 21 or more, and they'll be on these sites."
Mr. O'Hara adds that the study is the first of its kind to inspect closely the online advertising practices of alcohol companies. "In many instances, these features have a clear appeal to underage youth," he says. "Many parents and adults don't really appreciate the magnitude and severity of underage drinking."
The study comes on the heels of two lawsuits seeking class-action status filed against alcohol companies, including Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Co., the industry's largest domestic brewers. Both suits claim the companies target youths with flavored malt beverages (aka "alcopops") that resemble sodas, as well as with advertisements in markets where minors comprise a significant percentage of the audience.
The companies, not surprisingly, dispute that there is a link between ads and underage drinking. They add that they shouldn't be held responsible even if they indirectly target minors. Companies rely on advertising, they say, and it probably isn't possible to avoid having their ads seen by kids who watch TV, read magazines, and surf online.
What makes the question so tricky is that defining "direct" and "indirect" marketing is entirely subjective, says Janet Evans, director of the Federal Trade Commission's alcohol advertising program. "More than 99 percent of the dollars for advertising flavored malt beverages was expended in compliance with the industry standard," she points out, "but we didn't say the standard was fabulous."
When the FTC studied the effects of advertising on minors in 2003, it found no evidence that companies intentionally target underage drinkers. Nevertheless, it changed some regulations. Now, for example, alcohol companies may not advertise to an audience where minors comprise more than 30 percent; the cap used to be 50 percent.
After hearings on underage drinking last fall, legislation is being crafted on Capitol Hill to combat underage drinking and examine what, where, and how companies advertise, says Ryan McGinn, spokeswoman for Sen. Chris Dodd (D) of Connecticut. "We're hoping to roll out those recommendations next month, which is Alcohol Awareness Month." She adds that any recommendations the legislation makes will be based on a report released last fall by the Institute of Medicine in Washington.
"The industry actually invests a significant amount of research into programs that educate retailers, parents, etc.," says Mary Ellen O'Connell, who directed the Institute of Medicine report. "But a majority of those programs haven't been evaluated, and there's a fair amount of skepticism that we all would be better served if we redirect those resources to a nonprofit charged with reducing underage drinking."
The report also estimates the social cost of underage drinking at about $53 billion annually. Anheuser-Busch, meanwhile, has spent less than half a billion dollars over the past 20 years on alcohol prevention programs.
Still, Ms. O'Connell says, regulating what or where alcohol companies can advertise is a sensitive step. "We have freedom of speech in this country that the industry enjoys along with the rest of us, so we come down on the side of self-regulation."
Jim Schwartz, a spokesman for Anheuser-Busch, declined to comment on its marketing practices, referring instead to a statement issued in response to the lawsuit filed last month in the Los Angeles County Superior Court. "Advertising is not what causes youth to drink," the statement says, and goes on to defend "alcopop" products, which, the lawsuit argues, use flashy packaging and sweet taste to target minors.
"Taste is irrelevant when it comes to underage drinking," the company adds. "Underage drinking is not an advertising issue, it's a family issue, and it's a societal issue."
THIS stance infuriates Lynne and Reed Goodwin, whose college-age daughter, Casey, was killed by a teenage drunk driver in California last March, prompting the couple to file suit against Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing for directly targeting minors.
"We know that young people are highly susceptible and impressionable," says Mrs. Goodwin, who started speaking out against underage drinking 15 years before her daughter's death. "Alcopops? They're just like the tobacco industry's Camel Joe. They're creating gateway behaviors. The first step to get someone to drink is making them comfortable with the concept."