Contrary to a report in Sunday's business section, the Center for Science in the Public Interest is an independent consumer group unconnected to Ralph Nader or Nader's organizations. CSPI sponsors a program called SMART, for Stop Marketing Alcohol on Radio and Television. The program's name was incorrect in the Sunday article.
The grass-roots movement against alcohol that has swept across the nation in recent years has begun to focus on a new target: broadcast advertisements for beer and wine.
A broad coalition of groups ranging from the National Parent Teachers Association to the Consumer Federation of America is pushing for a congressional ban on all radio and television ads for alcoholic beverages similar to the ban on cigarette advertising initiated 15 years ago.
The effort is beginning to attract attention on Capitol Hill and at the Justice Department. The department recently held a series of meetings with representatives of the brewing, advertising and broadcast industries, as well as citizen and health groups, to look into the national problem of alcohol abuse and alcoholic beverage advertising.
The push to ban advertising of beer and wine is the latest step in a growing wave of public concern over the effects of alcohol abuse that also has seen the formation of such groups as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the passage of a national drinking age of 21 years, the formation by many companies of programs to help employes with drinking problems, and a variety of increased educational efforts aimed at discouraging teenage drinking and helping young adults drink in moderation.
Proponents of the advertising ban direct particular wrath toward brewers, arguing that by targeting the youth market with often-humorous commercials that use popular entertainers and ex-athletes to make their sales pitches, the beer makers are sending a subliminal message to viewers that encourages overconsumption of alcohol, leading to public health problems and drunk driving.
Not surprisingly, the push to ban alcoholic-beverage advertising is being opposed by makers and sellers of the products, who spend an estimated $720 million a year on radio and television advertising out of a total ad budget of perhaps $1 billion a year. In all, the beer industry is a $13-billion-a-year business.
The brewers argue that an advertising ban would have virtually no effect on overall beer sales, using as evidence the ineffectiveness of similar bans in other countries. They also note that cigarette sales have continued to rise in the United States despite a ban on broadcast cigarette advertising since 1969.
In fact, experts say, the biggest losers from a ban on broadcast alcoholic beverage advertising might not be the members of the beer and wine industry but the advertising agencies, television and radio networks and local stations that benefit from all that advertising largesse. The broadcasters and ad writers have joined the fight against an advertising prohibition.
Opponents of the ban say a more comprehensive program of education about the dangers of alcohol abuse is needed, rather than an ad ban. Brewers and television networks in particular are mounting programs to get that message across, working closely with anti-drunk-driving groups, preaching moderation and sponsoring TV programming warning against alcohol abuse.
"I think public concern is forcing everyone to look at responsible marketing," said Steven E. Forsyth, public relations manager at Miller Brewing, the division of Philip Morris Inc. that is the nation's second-largest brewer. "We're trying to show people who are adults who are interested in drinking beer that we can provide an acceptable and responsible product to those people."
"There just doesn't seem to be any justification for moving in and having a ban," said Dan Jaffe, senior vice president for government relations at the American Advertising Federation, an industry group. "It's very deceptive in that it holds out the possibility that there's a simple solution. There isn't one. . . . Coming up with a simplistic solution is not going to solve what is clearly a very important social issue."
"This idea of getting rid of advertising, we think, would be a totally ineffective way to approach this," said John Summers, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters.
"The problem is, why should we suffer a tremendous loss of revenue . . . because someone's got the hare-brained idea that you've got to do away with beer advertising?"
The push for the ban is being spearheaded by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Ralph Nader-related group.
A CSPI program called SMART, an acronym for Stop Merchandising Alcohol on Radio and Television, is attempting to gather 1 million signatures on a petition to Congress and the White House calling for a ban on broadcast advertising of beer and wine, or at least equal time for anti-alcohol messages.
The petitions have been circulated for the past six months by such groups as the National PTA, the Consumer Federation of America and several national religious organizations, including the United Methodist Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, and Southern Baptist, Mormon and evangelical groups. George Hacker, the head of the SMART drive, expects the 1 million signatures to be collected within two or three months.
Hacker says the supporters of the ban are concerned that too much of the beer and wine advertising showing up on television and heard on radio is reaching underage youths and heavy drinkers, creating and reinforcing health and societal problems.
"Our particular concern is that this advertising is to some degree intended to increase consumption of alcoholic beverages, and to increase consumption is to increase public health problems," Hacker said. "Kids from the age of 2 or 3 are bombarded with messages that glorify drinking by associating it with glamor and athletic success . . . . Very little, in contrast, is told about the relationship between alcohol and cancer, domestic violence, violent crime and alcoholism."
Arnold Fege, director of government relations for the National PTA, says his group is particularly concerned about children's exposure to beer advertising and some of the celebrity endorsements of alcohol. "There's a great deal of grass-roots support for banning, or at least keeping advertising off the air in the prime viewing hours for children," he said. "There's a great deal of interest in regulating the advertising so we can get the rock stars off TV, so we can get the sports stars off TV."
Fege notes that the hard-liquor industry has flourished for years despite a traditional ban on advertising for distilled products -- evidence, he says, that a ban wouldn't kill the beer industry. "The distilled-spirits folks don't look like they're going bankrupt to us," he said.
And Fege and Hacker say their desires go further than a ban on broadcast booze advertising. They also want other measures taken, particularly stepped-up educational and anti-drunk-driving proposals. "If we did nothing else but ban alcohol advertising and didn't work in the other areas, we would not succeed," Fege said.
"It's got to be part of a much broader campaign," Hacker said. "It's very difficult to measure the effect of just a ban. . . . Ultimately, what we're looking for is a reshaping of alcohol's role in society." Last year, CSPI petitioned the Federal Trade Commission for more sweeping restrictions, including a prohibition against using sports figures in beer advertising and a requirement that health warnings be included in all alcohol ads. So far, the FTC has not responded.
Beer companies and broadcasters say that they, too, would like to see more public awareness of the problems of alcohol abuse. But they don't think banning broadcast advertising will accomplish anything toward that goal.
"There is absolutely no study that exists today that shows that advertising of our products contributes to the abuse of our products," said Stephen K. Lambright, vice president and group executive with responsibility for governmental affairs at Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc., whose Budweiser beer is the nation's favorite brew. "There is no evidence whatsoever that an ad ban will have a meaningful effect on abusive and underage consumption."
"When you look at all the countries that have tried to do something in this area by manipulating advertising, you find without exception that those policies have done nothing to curb alcohol abuse," Jaffe said, noting that Norway, Sweden, France, the Soviet Union and various provinces of Canada are among those that have tried bans on alcohol advertising.
"The advertising itself is not what is generating these problems."
"These commercials are designed to create brand preference among legal-age consumers, which is not the same as trying to encourage people to drink," Forsyth said.
"Do a bunch of Clydesdales going down the street and saying, 'This Bud's for you,' make people say, 'I wanna go out and get a beer?' No," said Don Rice, a beer-industry analyst at Blunt Ellis Loewi, a brokerage house in the nation's fabled beer capital, Milwaukee. "I really don't believe you create a beer consumer when you advertise. You merely say 'buy our product instead of theirs.' "
The brewers argue that, in any event, their advertising is responsible, adhering to voluntary industry guidelines as well as to regulations promulgated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. "Commercials should not be designed to appeal to minors, should avoid using currently active athletes and should not suggest that beer consumption leads to success or to solutions to personal problems," Forsyth said, quoting from Miller's in-house guidelines.
"The models in all of our commercials, for all of our brands, are at least 25 years old to make sure that we don't even come close to the look of underage drinkers, and as intended, underage persons do not readily identify with the situations portrayed in our commercials."
Still, even some in the industry concede that some of the tactics used to sell beer walk a thin line between propriety and impropriety. The tight link between beer and sports is one controversial area, as are ads that seem to show people having a good time drinking beer.
"It shouldn't be glamorized in any way, although that becomes a subjective word," said Betty Hudson, vice president for advertising and promotion at NBC Television and one of the leaders of the broadcast industry's opposition to the ban. "You can show a commercial that shows young people dancing, and cut away to a cooler full of beer, and we don't have any problem with that. But some people . . . would ask, 'How do those people get home?' "
More problematic is the beer industry's aggressive marketing push on college campuses. Although not directly tied to the broadcast-advertising dispute, beer company sponsorship of such events as campus chug-a-lug contests and beer tastings is seen as emblematic of the alleged irresponsibility of the companies in marketing their products, especially to students who might be underage.
Stung by the criticism, many beer companies have toned down their college marketing activities.
"To a large degree, the college . . . push has been in bad taste," Rice said. "You don't do stupid things, and the industry's done bad things, wet-T-shirt contests and so forth."
Criticism of such tactics has come from no less than William Coors, chairman of Adolph Coors Co., who said in a speech last year, "I personally think it's outrageous, and everyone in the company thinks this is outrageous. One way or another, the country is going to stop this, because our industry doesn't have the ethics to stop it ourselves."
Fear of such outside intervention has the alcoholic-beverage industry scrambling to head off the possibility of a broadcast-advertising ban. The companies are stressing educational programs, working with citizens groups and cooperating with the Justice Department's ongoing study of the alcohol problem.
Industry organizations such as the U.S. Brewers Association and the National Beer Wholesalers Association are doing the same, as well as tightening up their industrywide guidelines on marketing practices -- a move that may be partly preempted by new advertising rules due soon from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Nobody in the industry wants a rerun of what happened to the cigarette makers 15 years ago, when requirements for equal time for anti-cigarette advertising became so onerous that the industry finally agreed to go along with the ban on cigarette commercials.
It's hard to judge just how likely a ban on beer and wine commercials is. All parties to the controversy say there is some interest up on Capitol Hill, which could increase sharply if public outcry about alcohol abuse grows -- something that seemed to help push through a national 21-year-old-drinking-age measure in the last session.
A congressional source said political interest in the ad-ban issue potentially could be quite broad. "It cuts across the political spectrum from the Nader folks to the United Methodists," the source said.
The brewers, vintners, advertising agencies and broadcasters could have one powerful weapon on their side: Many constitutional lawyers believe that a ban on alcoholic-beverage advertising could be found by the Supreme Court to violate the First Amendment, based on recent rulings that have extended free-speech protections to commercial messages.
"Proponents of bans on liquor advertising would likely have a difficult road to walk in front of the Supreme Court," said prominent First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams, who added that the court might prefer the government first try other methods to curb alcohol abuse, such as increased anti-alcohol public service advertising and stiffer drunk driving penalties.
Nevertheless, the brewers take the threat of an ad ban seriously. And proponents of a ban say they will continue to battle.
"If alcohol advertising doesn't have an impact, why the hell are they spending $700 million a year, and growing, to try to convince consumers to spend?" asked Fege. "I think that a lot of advertisers have their heads in their wallets."