As you read in last week's issue, the two big beer companies brushed aside the Federal Trade Commission's proposal that the alcoholic beverage industry improve enforcement of its advertising codes by adopting third-party review of compliance.
In a letter to the editor in Ad Age the other week, Peter Coors, who runs his family's beer business, proposed as a compromise that Coors is willing to fund a pilot program that would use the National Advertising Review Council to monitor how Coors itself was adhering to the Beer Institute's advertising code.
Coors' ad policies already go beyond the Beer Institute's code. The beer code requires that half the audience of a beer company's TV advertising be comprised of consumers of legal drinking age. Coors' own rules are that the audience must be 60% drinking age, and the company hired Nielsen Media Research to audit its performance in that area.
Even though A-B and Miller want no part of the Coors proposal, it's nevertheless breakthrough stuff. Coors, I'm told, is willing to put up $600,000 for the pilot project, and I'm convinced it could be a very valuable experiment that could work in other industries as a way of getting others to join in. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. at one time was willing to go along with self-regulation, and now liquor marketer UDV North America and, I understand, the lottery industry are interested.
If Coors, alone in the beer industry, submits to self-regulation, it could be seen as a competitive advantage, and its two big rivals would probably be just as adamant that Coors not be allowed to enjoy that privilege. How ludicrous would that look to the outside world?
I am all in favor of using an important, third-party self-regulatory process whenever and wherever possible, even if only one company is involved. The FTC pointed out in its recent report to Congress on alcoholic beverage industry ad self-regulation that none of the industry ad codes provides for "an independent assessment or follow-up procedures for complaint resolution."
Here's what I believe: A rigorous self-regulatory program in all areas of advertising, but especially where government is sniffing around ready to impose its own rules, goes a long way toward preserving the First Amendment rights of the advertising industry.
Advertising's dilemma is that it must defend the ad rights of those who market legal but harmful products such as cigarettes (and maybe alcoholic beverages next) or face the risk of government action that gradually erodes those rights. That's basically a no-win situation that the advertising trade associations want to avoid.
The way out, of course, is to convince advertisers to agree to their own restrictions monitored by third-party oversight. In 1996, the ad trade groups proposed creating self-regulatory ad guidelines not just for cigarettes but for all "age-restricted" advertising, including beer, wine and distilled spirits. But when those disparate groups wanted no part of each other, the ad industry quickly backed off.
Now ad leaders have another chance, thanks to Coors' overtures. And if the Coors pilot project is the only way to get the ball rolling, the ad industry should seize the opportunity. I've been told the Coors proposal has neither been accepted or rejected. Outgoing Council of Better Business Bureaus President Jim Bast has at least kept the door open, if only a crack. And one last point: The pilot project might very well include more than Coors itself. The brewer thinks it has a shot at attracting other beer marketers, even if their names aren't Anheuser-Busch and Miller.
So the new head of the NARC, if it isn't the former chief, Wally O'Brien, should