The Council of Better Business Bureaus' National Advertising Division currently resolves disputes related to factual or substantiation claims. But the Coors pact would create a process that for the first time would examine more subjective ad complaints.
"The idea is to ensure advertiser responsibility in avoiding suggestions of underage consumption or over-consumption," said Jim Guthrie, president of the National Advertising Review Board, which oversees the National Advertising Division.
The move stands to open a Pandora's box. The NAD is the mainstay of the ad industry's self-regulatory program and is backed by the three major advertising associations: the American Association of Advertising Agencies; the Association of National Advertisers; and the American Advertising Federation. The new program is unrelated to NAD and would not be backed by those associations.
"It is not in their purview," said O. Burtch Drake, Four A's president-CEO. "NAD was established to review national advertising and the local [Better Business] bureaus review local advertising. It would seem to me out of the council's bailiwick."
The three ad associations in 1996 considered expanding NAD to look at similar issues involving liquor and tobacco ads, only to quickly drop the proposal. Marketers in those industries insist their existing industry codes and company policies are sufficient safeguards.
CBBB officials said the Coors proposal would be an extension of a program that marketers use to resolve consumer complaints on such issues as car troubles and Web site privacy.
"The dispute-resolution process is one where individual companies make a commitment to resolve disputes," said Charlie Underhill, senior VP-dispute resolution for the Council and chief operating officer for BBBonline. "We have none that involve advertising, but this is just an extension of the" existing process.
Under the plan, a single arbitrator would examine a complaint against Coors and recommend appropriate action; the decision could be appealed to a new three-person CBBB panel.
'NOT QUITE THERE YET'
Coors officials said the ads will be judged according to current Beer Institute and Coors company standards. "We are getting quite close [to resolving all the issues] but we are not quite there yet," said Bart Alexander, Coors director- industry and corporate issues.
The brewer hopes to cement ties with consumers via the move. Coors already takes several other steps beyond the Beer Institute code to avoid targeting under-age consumers.
In the past, marketers have been concerned a decision by one company to seek third-party review will put pressure on others to take similar steps. The CBBB said it would be willing to set up similar processes for other advertisers.
AAF President Wally Snyder said he's worried the CBBB is stepping into an area where complaints are difficult to reconcile. "My reaction is that individual companies should and do have the right to pursue what is right, but these are slippery areas. Who is the person who resolves this and on what basis?"
Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute, does not support third-party review. "We believe the existing process [where complaints are referred to brewers to resolve] works to the benefit of everyone," he said.