Until two years ago, the most popular rite of spring at George Washington University was a series of parties called "Miller Rocks the Block." The main attraction: a truckload of Miller beer delivered to fraternity row, with free T-shirts, hats and rock bands provided by a Miller Brewing Co. distributor.
This year, the beer companies are still on campus, but seldom to push beer.
Instead, an Anheuser-Busch distributor recently sponsored a "superdance" at GWU to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Last fall, Coors provided posters and bumper stickers with the Coors logo to promote a university soccer team.
Once a staple of campus life, beer promotions such as beer bashes, wet T-shirt contests and 20-foot inflatable beer bottles are soon to be a thing of the past. At colleges throughout Virginia, Maryland and the District, breweries are lending their names and their support instead to sporting events and charitable functions such as dance-a-thons and miniature car races that raise money for various charities.
Raising the drinking age to 21 in many states and controversial incidents such as the alcohol-related death of a Roanoke College student last fall have heightened public awareness about excessive drinking and forced breweries and their distributors to adopt a distinctly toned-down marketing strategy on college campuses.
"The beer companies have changed their tune a lot," said Marcia Guenzler, director of Greek activities at the University of Maryland at College Park. "They are a lot more cautious about supporting any events that might involve stretching the limits of one's consumption."
In the face of criticisms about past promotional tactics from antidrunk driving groups and college administrators, many beer companies and the U.S. Brewers Association have adopted guidelines that ask distributors to sponsor only events that are "in good taste" and that do not promote academic negligence, heavy drinking or blatant sexism. The new marketing strategy includes funding campus alcohol awareness programs and starting a college chapter of the high-school-based Students Against Driving Drunk.
"There is more concern now, and we're going along with the times," said Wendy Goad, a corporate spokeswoman for the Adolf Coors Co. in Denver, which has student representatives on 200 campuses nationwide.
Also at work here is a shift in young people's attitudes about alcohol consumption that appears to reflect a broader change in society's attitudes about drinking in general. So-called "heavy users" of beer -- adults between the ages of 18 and 24 -- "have declined in number after peaking in the late 1970s," according to a recent study published in Advertising Age magazine.
A survey by Simmons Market Research Bureau in New York showed that only about 39 percent of college students in 1983 were beer drinkers.
"Students are much more willing to speak out against excessive abuse," said Gerardo Gonzales, president of a nine-year-old organization called BACCHUS (Boost Alcohol Consciousness Concerning the Health of University Students), which has chapters on 200 campuses. "Now we're moving away from thinking of drunkenness as good fun."
Perhaps a reflection of the times, student leaders at GWU this year rejected a proposal to have a keg of beer at an on-campus sporting event, the GW Olympics. In the past, they say, advertising a keg was the best way to draw crowds to campus activities. That no longer seems to be the case.
"People are really afraid to go out and get really drunk, especially if they have to drive," said GW senior John Holsinger, vice president of the student association. "A lot of it is fear of the drunk-driving laws."
A host of area colleges, including William and Mary, the University of Virginia, Maryland and James Madison, have instituted dry fraternity rushes in response to concerns about alcohol abuse. The president of Roanoke College recently announced new rules prohibiting beer kegs at parties and requiring food and soft drinks to be served at functions where beer is available. The University of Virginia no longer holds its famous Easters weekend, a spring bacchanal during which a student died in an alcohol-related traffic accident a few years ago.
A higher drinking age than in previous years also is responsible for less aggressive beer salesmanship on local campuses and for declining beer sales nationally, according to Advertising Age. The Simmons survey showed that only 60 percent of the nation's 4.4 million college students were of legal drinking age in 1983.
In Maryland, where the drinking age is now 21, beer distributors have been frozen out of many campus activities where beer was once the standard beverage. Although the University of Maryland has 52 fraternites and sororities, a prime market in the past for beer sales, half of the undergraduate student population is currently under legal drinking age.
In 1981, before the state raised the drinking age, there were 122 events at College Park that had liquor licenses. Last fall, there were none, and alcohol was officially banned from fraternity pledge parties.
"We no longer have the same degree of problem, by far," said William Thomas, university vice president for student affairs. "When the drinking age changed, the market kind of went away."
In Virginia, the state legislature voted just two weeks ago to raise the beer-drinking age from 19 to 21, partly because of congressional legislation that will deny states some federal transportation funds in 1986 if they do not impose an age-21 requirement.
Many beer distributors concede that, because they are less able to promote their beers, they are simply trying to get students to establish name recognition for their brands by sponsoring activities and using tax-deductible giveaways. Anheuser-Busch, for example, now gives away Budweiser key chains with information about acceptable blood-alcohol levels.
"Instead of going in and trying to sell beer, we just try to generate brand preferences through good will," said Ronald Young, college coordinator for The Superior Beverages Inc. in the District, an Anheuser-Busch distributor that sponsors events at area universities. "If there is an event on campus, we like it to have our beer, but we don't try to push it on anybody."
The inevitability of the higher drinking age has forced some breweries to reassess the value of having student representatives on campuses, a decades-old tradition in which students have served as salespersons and liaison between distributors and student governments, fraternities and other campus groups that buy large quantities of beer.
Stroh Brewery Co. no longer has campus representatives, according to R. Sue Denny, manager of corporate communications, and it has stopped direct marketing on college campuses.
"We can't be certain the promotions are targeted toward legal drinkers, and we're not interested in ambiguities," she said.
The change of climate on campuses has some distributors worried that the college market may disappear completely.
"We certainly are concerned about it the raise in the drinking age ," said Michael Highsmith, the manager of college marketing for Kirtley Distribution Co. in Charlottesville, which distributes Coors beer. "To be perfectly honest, we have an incredible business here at the university with fraternity rushes and lots of parties. They drink a lot of beer."
In the District, the drinking age is still 18 for beer and wine. But even so, some local wholesalers say that the trend toward moderation has made the once-bountiful college market a less profitable target.
Clyde Butler, who handles Stroh's beer for American Potomac Distributing Co. in the District, says his firm decided against placing an ad this year in an areawide student guide. "It's just too sensitive an issue now," Butler said. Even with the changes, the promotion and use of beer remains solidly entrenched in college life, particularly on campuses where fraternities are popular. About 75 percent of college men who are legal drinkers say they drink beer, the Simmons survey showed, along with about 57 percent of the legal-age college women.
"The frats buy so much beer that it pays to give stuff away," said Elizabeth Havlu, a German and computer science major and one of two Coors representatives at U-Va. As part of her promotions she has posters and bumper stickers that say "Coors" and "Do It Hoos" (one of the school's nicknames).
"Students are not drinking less, they are drinking less often," said Tom Widener, the director of programming for U-Va.'s student union. "But there still is a mentality here of drinking as much as you can on the weekends."
In general, university officials welcome the low-key approach of the beer companies, but some officials question the motives behind the new marketing techniques.
"The beer companies have been a little more responsible about alcohol awareness," said Carmen G. Neuberger, dean of students at American University, "but of course they are profit-making companies and they want to sell their product."