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
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
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. …