TV Dilutes Alcohol Angst

Sep 15, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The National Academies of Science took a major swat at the television industry last week in a report that recommends a wide-ranging series of actions to crack down on underage drinking. Recommended actions include government monitoring of TV advertising, factoring alcohol use in TV shows into ratings and greater industry self-regulation.
While it appeared to be a tough indictment of how alcohol use is portrayed on TV, the impact of the long-anticipated study was greatly diluted by several industry initiatives purposely timed to coincide with the release of the report. Those include beefed-up advertising standards for beer and other alcoholic beverages.
“The industry pre-empted the impact,” said Dan Jaffe, executive VP of the Association of National Advertisers. “In regard to advertising, I don’t see what would give anybody a springboard for action.”
Helping the industry avoid significant PR damage was a competing report released by the Republican-dominated Federal Trade Commission that acknowledged the TV industry’s self-regulatory efforts. “Self-regulation practices in the alcohol industry have shown improvement,” the FTC report said.
The NAS identified underage drinking as a major social problem. Its report, two years in the making, called it a major problem for society that must be addressed through a series of dramatic actions, ranging from increased excise taxes to new public service campaigns. It called on those who rate TV shows to issue clear warnings about the content of television programming.
One of the key recommendations to directly target TV asks that the industry strengthen advertising codes to discourage ads for alcoholic beverages in programming that attracts a significant number of viewers under 21, the legal drinking age. The report also suggests the bar be raised to avoid alcohol ad placements in programs that have an audience of fewer than 85 percent adult viewers.
In anticipation of the report the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and the Beer Institute met the academy halfway-announcing they had already decided to raise the cap on alcohol advertising from programming that has at least 50 percent adult viewership to 70 percent. That’s a change that officials from the TV and alcohol industries said reflects current practice and should have little impact on alcohol advertising.
“By and large, the bulk of the advertising is at 70 percent already,” said Jeff Becker, Beer Institute president.
In its own report, the FTC warned that raising the cap to 85 percent would end beer advertising in National Hockey League and National Basketball Association broadcasts.
“[Raising the bar to 85 percent] would, of course, reduce the number of youths exposed to alcohol ads, but it would also prevent the companies from advertising in media where there is substantial adult interest,” the FTC said.
Watchdog group representatives charged that the FTC report-which Congress requested in February-failed to address some of the issues posed.
“The FTC gave the industry a pass based on the industry’s own documents,” said George Hacker, director of the alcohol policies project for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
But ANA’s Mr. Jaffe said the industry, by volunteering to move the bar to 70 percent, had pushed the issue further than Congress was ever likely to try to go.
“The FTC, which is the regulator in this area, has given the industry a clean bill of health after a very comprehensive review,” Mr. Jaffe said. “There’s no need for any regulatory action.”
“Broadcasters have voluntary guidelines against glamorizing underage drinking,” added Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. “The FTC report confirms that these guidelines are working.”
In the wake of the industry’s action, even major congressional critics of alcohol advertising said the only legislation envisioned for the foreseeable future would be a measure backed by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., to provide federal funding for a public awareness campaign to alert adults about the dangers of underage drinking.
“If we educate parents about the facts … parents can play a key role in limiting underage drinking,” Rep. Roybal-Allard said. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., said, “The FTC’s latest report confirms that self-regulation is working, particularly with respect to minimizing the exposure of individuals under the age of 21 to alcohol advertising and marketing messages.
“I am pleased to learn that the industry is today announcing steps to institute an ad placement policy that guarantees a minimum 70 percent adult audience standard for all broadcast and print media. This new 70 percent standard is responsible and appropriate,” Rep. Tauzin said.
Alcohol advertising is a major business, generating more than $1 billion for radio and the television industries in 2002, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising.
In the same year ads for distilled spirits generated revenue of only about $45 million for radio and TV, TVB said. But hard-liquor ads have become more high-profile on stations over the past several years.
Indeed, according to Lisa Hawkins, a DISCUS spokesperson, ads for distilled alcohol products have appeared on more than 550 TV stations, the vast majority of those being network affiliates. In addition, she said, the ads have appeared on more than a dozen cable networks, including BET, Fox Sports Network, Discovery and Comedy Central.
The NAS and FTC reports were released on the same day last week, but spokespersons for each organization insisted the timing was coincidental.
Vanee Vines, an NAS spokeswoman, confirmed that the release of the NAS report was pushed up by one day to coincide with the release of the FTC report. But Ms. Vines said NAS decided to release its report early because a copy had been leaked to the press and it was not an attempt to prevent the FTC from stealing NAS’ thunder.
In an interview, Mary Engle, an FTC staffer who worked on the agency report, said it appeared that pushing the bar to 70 percent would have a greater impact on radio and print advertising than it would on television.
The NAS report also recommended that TV broadcasters and producers ensure that programs do not portray underage drinking in a favorable light.
“The entertainment industries should use rating systems and marketing codes to reduce the likelihood that underage audiences will be exposed to movies, recordings or television programs with unsuitable alcohol content, even if adults are expected to predominate in the viewing or listening audiences,” the NAS report said.
According to the report, heavy drinking by adolescents can cause mild brain damage, while the social cost of underage drinking has been estimated at $53 billion a year, including $19 billion from traffic accidents and $29 billion from violent crime.
The moves toward being more responsible are timely. Politicians already are threatening a ban on liquor advertising on TV that appears to encourage underage drinking.