It's only a marketing test for Anheuser-Busch's new soft drink, Chelsea, a beverage packaged like a premium beer with a foil wrapper, a frothy head, and just a sip under half a percent of alcohol.
But in Virginia it's already being boycotted by nurses, clergy and educators who say the drink is calculated to get young people into the habit of drinking alcoholic beverages.
The Richmond area is one of six marketing sites nationwide where the world's largest brewer is testing what its television, radio and newspaper blitz proclaims to be "the new not-so-soft drink."
Because Chelsea contains less than a half a percent of alcohol it can be sold to anyone of any age, including children, and is stocked throughout the Richmond area on supermarket shelves next to the soft drinks.
"It's absolutely safe for a 3-year-old," said Joe Finnigan of Fleishman, Hillard Inc., the St. Louis public relations firm that represents the brewing company.
A child weighing 60 to 70 pounds would have to drink a gallon of the amber-colored beverage in an hour before he would exhibit "overt behavioral effects," said Finnigan. "That's more than a child's stomache that size could hold."
Finnigan acknowledged that before marketing the product. Anheuser-Busch considered the possibility that teen-agers and children might abuse the product. "That's one of the things behind the test market and I don't mean that to sound inhuman at all," said Finnigan.
"Besides," he said, "most kids I've talked to don't care for it. It's too dry for them. They want that Coca-Cola 'the real thing.'"
A combination of ginger, lemon and apple flavoring with a malt-flavored base. Chelsea sells for about $2 a six-pack. The company hopes it will be "the super-premium soft drink much as Michelob is the super-premium beer," said Finnigan.
Anheusr-Busch originally intended to limit its Virginia test marketing to Richmond. But cable television carries some Richmond programming to Staunton, Va., nearly 100 miles to the northwest and the company decided it would be cost-effective to sell the product there as well.
As a result Chelsea has become a target of criticism in Staunton, too.
Last week, the 3,000-member Virginia Nurses Association led by its Staunton chapter voted to condemn the product and boycott ti. "My children have been pretending it's beer," said Barbara Bolton, executive director of the association.
Finnigan made a trip to Staunton and tried to contact some of the "move vocal nurses," he said, but they refused to see him or discuss the matter.
Staunton clergymen and some educators also oppose the marketing of a product which, Kenneth B. Frank, Staunton's superintendant of schools, said is geared toward "socially conditioning" the yound to take up the drinking habit. Frank said he will not permit the beverage to be sold on school property.
Finnigan denies any intent to "condition" the young. The drink is meant to appeal to the "arban adult," he said, citing the fact that most of the ads promoting the product are seen with the 6 and 10 o'clock news.
"We're not going to risk some kind of backlash - at least not knowingly," he said.
The marketing test in Virginia is the only one in which there has been opposition to the product, according to Finnigan. But Finnigan declined to disclose the loctions of the other marketing sites.
Finnigan also declined to disclose how much Anheuser-Busch spent in promoting and developing the product because, he said, "they [the competition] are watching us like hawks."
Because CHelsea contains so little alcohol, it comes under the control of neither the federal Burean of Alcohoi. Tobacco adn Firearms nor Virginia's Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission. A FOod and Drug Administration spokesman said "it's hardly anything the FDA need have any concern with."
The last time Anheuser-Busch went into the soft drink business was during the days of Prohibition with a "near-beer" product called "Bevo." The line was dicontinued when it was unable to compete with bootleggers, Finnigan said.