If a coalition of certain consumer groups has its way, "This Bud's For You" will not be true on the tube. Paul Masson, which proclaims voluntarily to sell "no wine before its time," may soon find that it can sell no wine in TV prime time.
Fresh from successful initiatives to strengthen drunk-driving laws and to raise the minimum drinking age to 21, an association of national consumer and public interest organizations has shifted the focus to the nation's broadcasting industry and proposed a ban on beer and wine commercials. (By voluntary agreement, "hard" liquor has never been advertised on radio or TV.)
This new association -- Project SMART (Stop Marketing Alcohol on Radio and Television) -- has garnered nearly a million signatures nationwide on a petition that will be presented to Congress later this spring.
Project SMART's premise -- that media advertising of beer and wine promotes "a dangerously glamorized" view of drinking and contributes to alcohol abuse -- was strongly contested at a Senate hearing in Washington last month. Brewers, vintners and media representatives testified that there is no proven nexus between broadcasting ads and alcohol abuse. In addition, broadcasters claim to be deglamorizing the portrayal of alcohol use in programming as well as donating millions of dollars worth of free time to public-service ads directed against alcohol abuse.
SMART spokesman Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of Washington's Center for Science in the Public Interest, concedes that there is scant scientific evidence of a direct link between advertising and alcohol abuse. But drawing on intuition shared by many parents and social scientists, Jacobson is firmly persuaded that ads -- especially those allegedly aimed at young drinkers -- contribute to society's conceded alcohol abuse problems. He asks, "Why else would they hire college-age actors and former sports celebrities, unless they intended to appeal to youth?"
"That is just nonsense," says Donald B. Shea, president of the U.S. Brewers Association. "The available evidence confirms that advertising merely promotes brand loyalty," he says, "and does not increase consumption."
Whether ads are intended simply to bolster one company's market share or to coax America's armchair cowboys to bolt for a six-pack at their nearest convenience stores, Shea's argument is at least partially supported by evidence of flat or declining beer and wine sales in recent years when media budgets have not been reduced.
The big losers should a ban be enacted could be the broadcasters, since they and cable operators would have to replace approximately $1 billion annually in revenues -- principally from the loss of beer ads. "There is a good chance," says one senior NBC official in Washington, "that we would have to drop coverage of sporting events such as golf and basketball."
Opponents of a ban also rely on the First Amendment. Beer and wine industry spokesmen assert that any congressionally legislated ban would violate their rights of free speech and expression. In a long line of cases, the Supreme Court has held that even "commercial" speech is entitled to some First Amendment protection, as long as it is not misleading.
But federal appellate courts have recently held that the states do not violate the First Amendment when they ban liquor ads, since they have the power under the 21st Amendment to proscribe liquor sales within their jurisdictions entirely.
And there is another factor. "Congress has broad powers to regulate broadcasting," says University of Texas law professor Scot Powe, a constitutional law scholar and former Supreme Court clerk. "If I were the broadcasters, I would not place a great deal of reliance on the commercial speech cases, particularly when the Supreme Court has already approved the TV ban on cigarette ads."
SMART's Jacobson, who says that his long-term project has just entered its educational phase, claims that broadcasters have already warned brewers privately "to tone down their ads." He suggests that one alternative to a total ban might be to require counter-ads or warnings tagged onto each beer and wine commercial.
The controversy also has galvanized its opponents and may even force certain realignments within the alcoholic beverage industry. Breaking a 50-year unwritten "code" not to criticize publicly its cousins in the beer industry, a leader of California's wine industry has opened fire on brewers for their lack of restraint in advertising.
Michael Mondavi -- president of Robert Mondavi Winery and chairman of the Wine Institute's Law & Regulations Committee -- launched an opening salvo in Washington last month against TV and radio advertising by certain beer companies.
"I think it is immoral how they're pandering to youth," Mondavi said of the brewers. "Sex sells, but appealing that way to youth is improper." Issuing a blunt warning, Mondavi added: "The beer companies have been able to get away with it up to now. But they had better slam the brakes on it."
Although some large California wine producers declined to comment, many vintners share Mondavi's concern. "There is a considerable body of people who think we don't need that kind of advertising to sell wine, and I believe the legitimate concerns that are being expressed will be accommodated by our industry," says Warren Winiarski of Stag's Leap Wine Cellar. Staking out such a position is easy when few of California's wineries have ever placed broadcasting ads.
"I hope that the brewers wake up and clean up their act before it is too late," warned Mondavi. He noted that informal warnings given to officials of the beer industry several years ago were rebuffed. "They thought we were little old ladies shouting in the night," he said.
"I think we are being unjustifiably lumped into the beer category," said Mondavi. "Even though all of the examples of undesirable advertising turn out to be the beer commercials, we get equal blame," he said. "It's guilt by association" he added, "and I think it's time that we break that association."
"I am shocked at Mondavi's inappropriate categorization," said the brewers' Shea. "While it is true," he said, "that wine has different customers and it will probably always be advertised differently than beer, we have similar guidelines to the Wine Institute's voluntary code and do not aim our ads at underage drinkers."
Shea noted that an independent review panel that hears specific complaints against beer industry practices is being reorganized and he pointed to one brewery's signing of baseball star Steve Garvey to do paid alcohol-abuse ads as indications that his industry "is not stonewalling" on the issue.
"What Mondavi may overlook," says Jacobson, "is that more and more family-run wineries are being acquired by large companies, some of whom have aggressive marketing departments. As competition heats up, wine advertising, too, will become less restrained." He adds that commercials for a certain dry sherry and for the new fruit-juice-and-wine "coolers" are as objectionable as any ads that brewers are now featuring.
Dousing SMART's hopes for a governmental ally, Federal Trade Commission chairman James Miller said last month that his agency's investigation of a complaint filed last year by SMART has failed to find evidence that current ads impact total consumption of beer and wine, much less cause abuse. Nor has a 1980 proposal to bar athletes from beer and wine ads been adopted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, although that agency has said it soon will publish notice of "even tougher" advertising regulations.
While the House Telecommunications Subcommittee has scheduled a hearing for April 18 and a bill calling for a federal study has been introduced by a Howard Nielson (R-Utah), there already is evidence that SMART's goals may prove more difficult to achieve than when Congress responded in 1970 to a nationwide antismoking crusade by banning cigarette ads from radio and TV.
Retiring dozens of Marlboro men is one thing, but the cigarette ban is not a perfect analogy here. By 1970, the surgeon general had declared cigarettes to have no redeeming social (or personal) value. Moderate use of beer and wine have generally not been so criticized, at least not yet by the surgeon general. Some controversial studies even seem to indicate that moderate consumption of wine may have a role in reducing some heart disease.
Because the linkage of wine and beer advertising -- and references to them as if they were interchangeable products -- is troubling to some wine producers, Mondavi's tough rhetoric could be the initial step in what could become an ultimatum to the beer industry.
"First," said Mondavi, "we want to quickly clean up our own house." The Wine Institute, a California trade group representing nearly 500 wineries, toughened its own Code of Advertising Standards in 1978 to prohibit appeals to youth. Mondavi favors "dusting them off" and strengthening them further if necessary. And he wants the Italian trade association in New York to discipline a couple of its wine advertisers "who behave like the brewers."
Mondavi favors a summit meeting "within the next few weeks" between representatives of the U.S. Brewers Association and the Wine Institute. While Mondavi has been outspoken, institute president John A. DeLuca has refrained from any public criticism of the brewers, and has, in fact, been meeting quietly with leaders of the brewing industry.
DeLuca was surprised by Mondavi's blunt criticisms. "I respect Michael's opinion and recognize his frustrations," DeLuca said cautiously, "but believe that we are slowly reaching an accommodation with the brewers."
To Mondavi, however, the brewers have shown little interest in changing either their ads or their attitudes. "The people at USBA have been unwilling even to talk about the possible adoption of our code of advertising," said Mondavi, who noted that the USBA itself is internally divided on the ad issue. "As a result, however, of the congressional interest," he added, "I think we will be able to stimulate some discussion with them."
But Mondavi is realistic about the differences that separate vintners from brewers -- differences that may preclude a harmonization of their interests. "The wine industry is long-run oriented," said Mondavi. "Wine cannot be produced quickly, shipped out immediately and forgotten about, like beer," he said. "We are forced to be foresighted by the nature of the winemaking and maturing process."
"In addition," he said, "drinking wine is a part of everyday life, an accompaniment to foods. We are not out there peddling it as alcohol or for gusto's sake." He shrugged. "But I get the impression that the brewers are locked in such a competitive struggle that they will do whatever is necessary to get the sales."
"If we don't educate the brewers and then take our case to the public," said Mondavi, "then I think they SMART have a better than 50-50 chance." Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), who guided the Wine Equity Act through Congress last year, has told DeLuca that the ad-ban proposal is a "sleeping giant."
Shea says, "We have no better than an even chance as long as this issue is viewed emotionally rather than on the facts." He senses that the "hysteria" of December and January has thawed.
Whether the ad ban is a serious threat this year or not, the broadcast industry seems to have "found religion." Not only has J.R. Ewing displayed less of his bartending expertise in CBS's "Dallas" series this season, the National Association of Broadcasters (whose member stations could lose more than $700 million annually from a ban) has targeted the SMART proposal as its top 1985 legislative concern.
"Those who take this proposal ban seriously," says Mondavi, "recognize that it is riding the crest of a second wave of prohibition in America."