By Ron Scherer and Nicole Gaouette, writers of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
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. …