Commentary: How Big Liquor Takes Aim At Teens

Pick up a copy of Spin, and it's not hard to guess the age of many of its readers. The music magazine's current issue includes an article on MTV's new cartoon about high school life and ads for products popular among teens such as Mountain Dew and video games. One hip clothing ad even depicts a teenage model riding on the handlebars of a bike.

Indeed, according to data collected by Mediamark Research Inc. (MRI), a New York City company that tracks magazines, 30% of Spin readers are under 18. Almost 50% are under 21. But the magazine is also filled, front to back, with liquor ads.

Ravaged by a 20-year plunge in spirits consumption, the nation's biggest distillers are making a major push to draw younger drinkers. All insist their efforts are aimed at the 21-to-35 crowd. "Always, always, always, we want to target people over the legal drinking age," says Mark Marcon, a marketing manager for Hiram Walker. The industry even has a high-minded advertising code urging the avoidance of "targeting...individuals below the legal purchase age."

Truth is, the industry is breaking its own rules almost daily. The target of the distillers' new products and ads clearly includes those who are underage. Many have introduced fruity new drinks that tempt younger palates. Taking a page from Big Tobacco, the liquor industry has a new crop of ads featuring cartoon animals and sophomoric lingo; one Jose Cuervo ad urges drinkers to "Surf that lizard!" Others have game-filled Web sites.

Moreover, liquor companies have a presence in virtually every publication with a sizable teen audience. Combined, the current issues of Vibe, Details, and Rolling Stone have ads for Absolut, Bacardi, Beefeater, Captain Morgan, Crown Royal, Jim Beam, Sauza, Skyy, Smirnoff, Stolichnaya, and Tanqueray. But asked about the campaigns, the liquor makers remain almost mum. Take United Distillers PLC, whose Gordon's vodka is featured in a cartoon ad on the back page of this month's Spin. Its Tanqueray gin also appears in Allure, where 44% of the readers are under 21, according to the MRI. A company spokeswoman says both campaigns are "consistent with our commitment." Executives at both Spin and Allure say their readerships are significantly older. But MRI's numbers are widely used in the ad industry, and Spin spokesman Jason Roth concedes, "We do have a sizable teen audience."

All this is happening at the same time that the distillers have lifted their 40-year-old voluntary ban on TV advertising. They argue that it's simply a matter of fair competition. If breweries can legally pitch on TV to adults, why can't they? Thus far, no major broadcaster has gone along. And President Clinton, the head of the Federal Communications Commission, and some members of Congress have all urged restoring the ban.

ACT RESPONSIBLY. That has led alcohol and advertising executives to argue that the industry's free-speech rights are being trampled. Says Fred Meister, head of the Distilled Spirits Council: "The current FCC chairman may have forgotten about the First Amendment."

But the issue isn't as simple as industry defenders claim. Commercial speech, after all, doesn't carry the same protection as political speech. Witness the Supreme Court's Apr. 29 refusal to overturn a Baltimore ban on tobacco and alcohol billboards. And the distillers' attempts to wrap themselves in the Constitution would carry more weight if they used the advertising freedom they already have more responsibly. Their print ads make a mockery of the industry's own code and do little to assuage concerns about the impact of booze ads on the tube.

Currently, no regulations exist specifically addressing liquor ads. But given the industry's increasingly aggressive stance, the talk of restricting alcohol marketing won't fade away, even though the decades-old fight over tobacco advertising shows how difficult it is to control. So the liquor industry faces a clear choice. It can clean up its own marketing. Or it is likely to find itself right behind tobacco as the regulators' next big target.

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