Does a gorgeous woman in a slinky black dress appeal to you more than a printed label with some pithy product information?
It's supposed to, says Michael Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI), and it's a technique used by the liquor industry to promote what Jacobson refers to as an "addictive drug."
At a recent press conference, Jacobson -- standing in front of a collage of "deceptive" magazine advertisements for liquor -- announced that CSPI will join other groups to form "a broad alliance of organizations" asking "American producers of beer, wine and distilled spirits to adopt measures that would educate people about problems related to alcohol."
The coalition, described as "interesting" and "diverse" by one liquor industry representative, includes Rep. George Brown (D-Calif.), who has introduced a bill in the House that would require a label on alcoholic beverages warning against drinking and driving, drinking while pregnant and other problems associated with liquor.
About 14 groups and sundry individuals have joined CSPI and Brown to begin a sort of consumer blitz campaign. Action for Children's Television, the Consumer Federation of America, Doctors Ought to Care, National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting and other organizations have pooled their efforts and energy to put pressure on the alcohol industry.
For many years, CSPI has fought to have nutrition information and ingredients included on the label of liquor containers. The center was briefly appeased when the Carter Administration passed legislation which would require companies to disclose ingredient information upon request. The legislation was due to become effective in 1983. President Reagan rescinded the rules immediately upon taking office, however.
This labeling legislation would help identify products such as Miller's "Lite" beer -- what Jacobson refers to as "imitation beer" -- which contain preservatives or flavor enhancers. He maintains that such labeling would allow the consumer to choose a product with fewer additives if he wishes.
In addition to endorsing this labeling legislation, the coalition also asks manufacturers -- in the spirit of voluntarism extolled by the Reagan Administration -- to follow the lead of Seagram's distillery, which promotes its brand-name liquor (but not its imported scotch and vodka) through magazine ads which advise readers, "And remember, use good judgment whenever you drink. You'll always enjoy it more."
The coalition wants liquor producers to clean up their advertising practices: to quit promoting their products on college campuses and to stop using ads that associate liquor with sexual, professional or athletic prowess.
The industry's practices don't need cleaning up, counters Chris Valauri, spokesman for the U.S. Brewers Association. He says that advertising serves only to differentiate between products, that people don't decide to drink because of advertising, they just decide what they'll drink because of the ads. About warning labels, he points to a joint study between the Departments of Health and Human Services and Treasury which "did not recommend warning labels as an effective means to educate the public."
Valauri calls a new radio advertising campaign a "good first step" in getting involved in alcohol-abuse prevention. Featuring actress Kristy McNichol, the radio spots will be released by the Brewers Association to coincide with graduation and prom time to warn teen-agers about the hazards of drunk driving.
That doesn't satisfy the coalition, however, which asserts that liquor advertisements are far more prevalent than alcohol education advertisements. So the coalition requests that companies "contribute a significant fraction of their marketing budgets" to an independent foundation that would conduct prevention-oriented media campaigns and would not have members of the industry serving on its board.
Once again, Jacobson identified Seagram's as a leader in such efforts. The company contributed $5.8 million to Harvard Medical School two years ago to study the differences in the incidence of alcoholism in different ethnic groups.
Cameron Dunkin, spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), says that liquor distributors already do that kind of work, and that if Jacobson had done his homework there should have been mention of it at the press conference. Last week, for instance, DISCUS helped the Department of Transportation and the National Safety Council sponsor a national meeting to identify and discuss the problems associated with drunk driving.
The Wine Institute (representing California vintners) dissociates itself entirely from Jacobson's charges, according to Brian St. Pierre, director of public relations. Its advertising code, albeit a voluntary one, advises California winemakers not to use athletes or sexual implications in their ads and suggests that the wine always be associated with food. St. Pierre says that wine should go along with "gracious living and decent dining," adding that to drink too much wine wouldn't be "cost-effective. It would be plain dumb to go out and get crocked on chardonnay."
Problems with sexual and other "deceptive" implications, Jacobson concedes, show up more often in ads for foreign liquors, but he contends that a voluntary advertising code adopted for domestic liquor advertisements would set an example that would put pressure on foreign distributors.
The "imbalance of information" distresses Jacobson. Industry spends millions of dollars trying to get consumers "to think of alcohol as a standard part of American life" without any mention of the negative aspects of its products, he charges. Industry spokesmen, however, categorically deny the allegations.
The battle between liquor advertisers and consumer advocates is not a new one. Whether pressure from a coalition of consumer groups will convince industry it needs to provide more and better education to the American public remains to be seen.