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FTC probe of beers' ad media expands

By Published on .

With President Clinton pressing the Federal Communications Commission to examine hard-liquor advertising on TV and radio, Advertising Age has learned the Federal Trade Commission is launching a wide-ranging investigation into whether beer marketers target underage drinkers.

Miller Brewing Co. confirmed last week the FTC has requested information on its media buys. The company said it was cooperating with the commission.

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The investigation marks an expansion of an earlier FTC probe into ads for Stroh Brewery Co.'s Schlitz Malt Liquor that ran on MTV.


FTC requested from Miller information not only on the MTV buys but on all broadcast and print buys, and all creative targeting young drinkers.

Anheuser-Busch may also be a target of the investigation. Company executives couldn't be reached for comment.

The FTC would not comment.

According to Competitive Media Reporting, Miller spent $2 million on MTV last year, making it the network's largest beer advertiser. Anheuser-Busch spent $1 million on MTV in 1996.

Ad Age in January reported that during one week in September 1996, Miller and A-B beer ads ran on MTV programming where at least half the audience was below legal drinking age. A-B pulled its ads from MTV in December; Miller said it has since required that its ads run in later slots.

Word of the widening of the FTC probe came during the same week President Clinton sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt urging the commission to "take all appropriate actions to explore what effects might ensue in light of the decision by manufacturers of hard liquor to abandon their longstanding ban on television advertising, specifically on underage drinking."

Ad groups said the president is ignoring federal statutes and years of precedent in asking the FCC, rather than the FTC, to examine the ads. They said a ban on TV advertising for liquor would be "unconstitutional."


Mr. Hundt has been pushing to limit hard-liquor ads on TV and radio since the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. last October dropped its 50-year-old ban on broadcast advertising. In the face of this lobbying, few radio or TV stations or networks have agreed to carry the ads.

Mr. Hundt, however, has been less successful in convincing fellow FCC commissioners to act. With one vacant seat on the five-member commission, the FCC is evenly split over whether to examine liquor ads.

The president's decision to re-enter the fray may have been prompted by the reported success of Allied Domecq in getting stations to advertise its Kahlua Mudslide product.

In urging FCC action, President Clinton said last week, "I think we should move urgently to save parents, young people and our nation from the unavoidable bad consequence of liquor advertising on television."

Ad groups said the FTC's traditional case-by-case enforcement of fraudulent, unfair or illegal advertising is the way the Clinton administration should deal with distilled-spirits broadcast advertising.


"It will have a severe impact if it changes where you regulate advertising," said Dan Jaffe, exec VP at the Association of National Advertisers. "It will be a radical shift in the way advertising is regulated in the U.S."

Hal Shoup, exec VP, American Association of Advertising Agencies, said, "The FCC does not have the expertise or resources or the authority to address such a complex problem as how advertising targeted to adults will affect minors."

But FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky said, "I don't see it as a jurisdictional concern. It's quite appropriate to hold hearings, especially when the possible remedy is inducing advertisers not to advertise or banning advertising in the public interest. We couldn't do that. It's not the kind of jurisdiction we have."

President Clinton said last week he wasn't interested in examining beer and wine advertising on TV.

DISCUS, which said any probe into liquor advertising on TV and radio should encompass all acoholic beverages, hopes to launch a TV and print ad campaign from TBWA Chiat/Day, New York, defending its position.

Copyright April 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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