Is a Case Study for Branded Entertainment?

Clamor Over Site Shows That Marketers Who Own Media May Be Playing Under Tougher Rules

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CHICAGO -- Are marketers who create channels to disseminate their own branded content subject to a different standard than standard-issue advertisers?
According to one beverage-industry consultant, branded entertainment is an important channel for spirits marketers: 'They're not going to back down because of a letter.'

In a Feb. 15 letter accusing Anheuser-Busch Cos. of being lax about keeping underage drinkers off of its online TV network,, the attorneys general of 21 states told the No. 1 U.S. brewer that, as a media owner, it is playing by a different, more stringent set of rules.

And at a time when marketers as diverse as Toyota, Jack in the Box, Unilever, Krups and Mountain Dew, among many others, are experimenting with delivering their own branded content through their own channels, the notion of a higher-standard for those ventures could have a chilling effect if it's applied broadly.

'Specific to alcohol advertising'

But a spokeswoman for the Maine attorney general's office, which is leading the effort, last week said non-alcohol marketers had nothing to worry about. "We see this as specific to alcohol advertising," the spokeswoman said. "[Other industries are] outside the scope of what we're trying to do."

Alcohol-marketing experts say they don't expect the largest brewers and distillers -- who use digitally delivered branded entertainment as much, and as successfully, as any marketer group -- to back down, at least not without a fight.

"If anything, they'll push harder to test the limits after this," said Tom Pirko, a veteran beverage-industry consultant. "These are really important channels for them, and they're not going to back down because of a letter."

Indeed, A-B may have too much invested in -- a $40 million venture that has partnered the brewery with Hollywood heavyweights such as Vince Vaughn and Kevin Spacey -- to do otherwise. The No. 1 U.S. brewery has been rolling out tiny brands on an almost weekly basis for much of the past year. Managing such a stash of niche products has forced the brewery to find alternatives to the costly 30-second TV spots that have traditionally backed its largest brands -- that expanded product roster makes the brewer's ability to deliver branded content online and to mobile devices increasingly important.

Reminiscent of the fight against tobacco

Given that reality, it's no surprise that A-B hasn't shown any inclination to tweak following the missive from the attorneys general, despite the fact that the specter of state legal officers teaming up to attack an industry's marketing is reminiscent of the effort to curb tobacco marketing during the 1990s, and alcohol-industry watchdogs said they hoped the attorneys general would continue to use that model.

"They're following in tobacco's footsteps," said Michael Scippa, advocacy director at the Marin Institute, an alcohol-industry watchdog that's been in touch with the attorneys general. "They revolutionized how tobacco is marketed, and we hope they'll do the same with alcohol."

And alcohol-industry types -- who, Mr. Pirko noted, can argue that "unlike tobacco, their product makes you live longer, not shorter" -- seem feisty at the prospect of a showdown.

Summarizing the prevailing mood, Beer Business Daily Publisher Harry Schumacher told his subscribers (a mix of beer wholesalers and brewery executives) of an "experiment" in which his 13-year-old son had an easier time purchasing 190-proof Everclear than he did accessing the site.

"I can rest easy at night knowing that my son will be saved from Vince Vaughn's bad jokes on thanks to our country's diligent AGs, but can easily purchase a $25 bottle of grain alcohol (not to mention call up any variety of deviant pornography you could possibly conceive, and some you can't)," Mr. Schumacher wrote. "Oh, deliver me please from the perfidy, the hypocrisy."
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