Advertising in programs where most of the audience is underage is a violation of the voluntary Beer Institute code and could stir the interest of the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC is already investigating a single Schlitz Malt Liquor ad that Stroh Brewery Co. ran on MTV at 8 p.m. (ET) last July.
TRACKING A WEEK IN SEPT.
An Advertising Age study of beer ads on MTV: Music Television during the week of Sept. 1 to 7, 1996, found that Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Co. both ran commercials during time slots earlier than 10 p.m. (ET). A-B has since pulled all ads from MTV and moved them to sister network VH-1: Video Hits One to avoid reaching underage viewers (AA, Dec. 23).
On Sunday, Sept. 1, between 1:30 p.m and 8 p.m., MTV carried eight commercials for Budweiser, one spot for Miller Lite and one for Molson Canadian, according to Competitive Media Reporting data.
Some 53% of the cable network's audience during that time period, measured on an average-per-minute basis, was under the legal drinking age, according to Nielsen Media Research.
HALF UNDERAGE ON SEPT. 3
On Sept. 3, between 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., MTV carried four commercials for Budweiser and two for Molson Golden; its audience was 50% underage during the average minute then, Nielsen said.
Officially, the FTC declined to say whether it was looking into beer ads on MTV.
In announcing its decision to pull beer ads from MTV, A-B insisted most had run after 10 p.m.
Asked about the commercials that ran during the September week, the brewer released a statement: "With respect to MTV, it is our policy to air our commercials after 9 p.m. In certain situations, such as the special programming regarding the MTV Music Awards, which ran Sept. 1, our commercials have occasionally aired earlier during the day."
When a spokesman was told that 27 spots aired in one week before 10 p.m., he said: "I guess it depends on how much interpretive girth you give to the word `occasionally.' "
According to Nielsen, the greatest concentration of underage viewers was 56%, between 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Sept. 5. During that time, there was one spot for Stroh's Schlitz Malt Liquor and three commercials for various Miller brands.
A Miller spokeswoman said the brewery makes MTV media buys based on information provided by the network.
"Any attempt to examine only select media buys on a single day or during an isolated one-week period is misleading and simplistic," the spokeswoman said. "It does not take into account historic audience composition or the networks' specific measurement techniques for evaluating their audience. One week is not how the networks determine their audience composition."
MTV did not return phone calls.
The possibility of FTC action on liquor advertising may be strengthening as some important members of Congress question the Federal Communications Commission's right to step into the controversy, and point to the FTC as the logical investigator.
Several weeks ago, U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin (R., La.), chairman of the House Commerce Committee's telecommunications subcommittee, publicly questioned the FCC involvement. Last week, Rep. John Dingell (D., Mich.), ranking Democratic member of the House Commerce Committee, wrote FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, stating Mr. Hundt's resolve to look at liquor advertising was "curious." The letter repeatedly questioned the FCC's authority.
"Congress expressly created the [FCC] to be its expert agency on telecommunications issues. It is far less evident that Congress expected or empowered [it] to become the expert agency on the effects of advertised products on segments of society," the letter said.
Rep. Dingell asked Mr. Hundt and other FCC commissioners to provide specific statutory authority for an inquiry into liquor advertising, questioned whether the agency could act under the First Amendment and asked what resources the commission would call upon to reach its judgments on the effects of advertising.
An aide to Mr. Hundt said the questions are valid, but they are ones that could be answered in an FCC inquiry. He also noted that the FCC has received letters from 26 other members of Congress requesting an inquiry.
While the congressional pressure against FCC action may be increasing, the chance of a commission vote in favor of acting may be improving-but only if Mr. Hundt wants to wait long enough.
FCC Commissioner James Quello's decision to step down in April if a successor is named by then appears to alter the 3-2 split against looking at alcohol ads. Mr. Quello, a veteran broadcaster, has been outspoken against action.
Contributing: Bill McDowell.