In Depth

Fight Erupts Over Rules to Keep Booze Ads From Teens

By EJ Schultz
Adveritising Age

A new university report chastises alcohol advertisers for failing to keep booze ads away from teens, even though the study's results show the industry making some progress in living up to its self-imposed standards. It follows closely another university report that found a decline in youth binge drinking.

Industry rules prohibit alcohol ads on TV shows where more than 30% of the audience is below the legal drinking age. Last year, 23,718 ads -- or about 7.5% of all alcohol ads -- failed to meet the standard, down from 8.6% in 2008, according to the study by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Yet the center points to other data that it says show an increase in alcohol marketing exposure to teens. The report -- which examined the nearly 2.7 million alcohol TV ads it says were placed from 2001 to 2009 -- zeros in on people ages 12 to 20 whom the center says are most at risk of taking up alcohol as a result of ads. Of that population, 91% were exposed to alcohol TV ads in 2009, seeing an average of 366 ads, according to the study. That's up from the 90% of the age group that had exposure in 2001, who saw an average of 217 ads. (The calculation includes shows that reach less than 30% of underage viewers.)

"This is a significant and troubling escalation, and shows the ineffectiveness of the industry's current voluntary standards," said David Jernigan, the center's director. The study also singles out 13 brands that it says were responsible for half of the exposure, exceeding the industry's 30% threshold, including five controlled by MillerCoors and two by Diageo.

The Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS), which represents the spirits industry, called the report "biased advocacy research," saying its claim that "an increase in alcohol advertising is causing teens to drink is undercut by the federal government data." And in fact, earlier this week DISCUS has been touting the 2010 Monitioring the Future study released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the University of Michigan that found underage drinking rates among 8th, 10th and 12th graders are at their lowest levels.

Still, the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth said underage drinking remains "stubbornly high" and that 40,000 young people have died as a result.

The center wants marketers to tighten standards to ban booze ads on shows where more than 15% of the audience is ages 12 to 20. Meantime, the Federal Trade Commission for months has been pushing for a 25% threshold. (FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection Director David Vladeck made the request again in October during a meeting with beer, wine and spirits suppliers, Beer Business Daily recently reported.)

"Things are better. We just think they should continue to improve," Janet Evans, an FTC senior attorney, told Ad Age. "We don't think they should be resting on their laurels."

Industry leaders have so far resisted the request, pointing out in a Dec. 2 letter to Mr. Vladeck that a 2008 FTC report concluded that the 30% threshold was "consistent with the 2000 Census data, showing that approximately 70% of the American public is 21 or older." (2010 census population data is scheduled to be released next week.)

The 30% threshold is "a socially responsible, fact-based standard," stated the letter, signed by trade groups including the Beer Institute, Wine Institute and Distilled Spirits Council.

The FTC has never sought to enforce the voluntary standard, Ms. Evans said. She declined to comment on the commission's interest in pursuing action in the future.

Dan Jaffe, exec VP for government relations for the Association of National Advertisers, said "there's nothing in my view the government can constitutionally do."

"It's just not possible" to stop all booze ads from reaching kids, he added. Hypothetically, "if you start advertising at three in the morning, you would hope that most young kids would be in bed -- but even then, that would not be the case" with all children, he said.#