FTC scrutinizes beer ads' use of college papers

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The Federal Trade Commission is investigating an undisclosed number of beer marketers for advertising in college newspapers, Advertising Age has learned.

At least two brewers, Portland Brewing Co. and Boston Beer Co., have received inquiries from the agency regarding such ads.

It's not known whether other breweries have been contacted. Two of Stroh Brewery Co.'s brands were advertised in college newspapers last year, but a beer industry executive said the category's fourth-largest player hasn't been a target of scrutiny.

UNDERAGE AUDIENCES

The FTC is concerned beer marketers are using the medium to target underage drinkers. An FTC spokesman declined to verify the investigation, but said, "The commission chairman [Robert Pitofsky] has said publicly he is concerned about alcohol advertising that either by its placement or content is being directed at underage audiences."

The college newspaper inquiry appears related to a previous FTC probe into MTV ad buys by Anheuser-Busch, Miller Brewing Co. and Stroh. The FTC was concerned beer ads were appearing on MTV shows with predominantly under-21 audiences. As a result of the probe, all three brewers pulled their ads from MTV, in some cases switching them to sister cable network VH-1, which attracts an older audience.

The college newspaper inquiry is asking for information about ads that have run in college papers, as well as age demographics for the student body. The FTC also is requesting information about on-campus events that brewers have sponsored.

NEGLIGIBLE SPENDING

By all accounts, relatively few brewers advertise in college papers and the dollars they spend are negligible compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars the industry annually spends on marketing.

Portland Brewing, which has advertised in college newspapers for several years, views the publications as a way to reach adults who have recently turned 21 and whose tastes in beer presumably still are forming.

The brewer, one of those under investigation, decided to spend $400,000 this year on a print campaign to run in alternative weeklies and more than a dozen campus newspapers in California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington.

"We're cooperating with the investigation," said Michael Kiriazis, marketing director.

Moffatt/Rosenthal, Portland, Ore., handles creative, and Cass Communications, Los Angeles, handles campus newspaper placements for Portland Brewing.

STROH IN COLLEGE PAPERS

Meanwhile, ads for two Stroh brands, Mickey's Malt Liquor and Henry Weinhard's, ran in some college newspapers on the West Coast. Mickey's appeared in the Oregon Daily Herald at the University of Oregon, while ads for Henry Weinhard's appeared in the Stanford Daily at Stanford University.

Brewers that advertise in college newspapers said they do so on campuses where the majority of students are legally old enough to drink. For example, the University of Oregon said last spring 63.7% of its 15,735 students were 21 or older.

According to 1994 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, 58.6% of the nation's 15 million college students were over 21.

Brewers also maintain college newspaper readership skews older when faculty and the surrounding community are taken into account.

Nevertheless, some brewers deliberately avoid college newspaper advertising to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Red Hook Brewery, for example, deliberately stays away from college newspapers.

Sometimes mistakes happen. Although Boston Beer Co. has made it a practice not to advertise in college newspapers, some ads slipped through the cracks last September, industry executives say. A regional office of the brewer placed ads for subsidiary Oregon Ale & Beer Co. with some California university papers, including the Daily Bruin at the University of California-Los Angeles.

Boston Beer, also said to be under FTC scrutiny, plans to tighten its policy on such ads.

Copyright August 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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