Editorial: The right step for alcohol ads

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Beer and liquor industry groups did what they had to do last week when they formally called on industry members to limit ad venues to those that reach 70% or more adults. With some tobacco advertisers adopting even tighter audience standards, the previous 50% adult requirement in beer and liquor ad codes was simply not tenable. And media will live with it.

Moreover, a lot appears to have changed for the better for alcoholic beverage advertisers-and for the wider advertising community as well-if the tone of two government reports last week is a litmus test for advertising's current "political" health.

In the 1990s, sweet-flavored malt beverages came along and their marketers were accused of targeting "alco-pops" at teens. A few beer ads appeared in MTV shows with teen-heavy audiences, and critics and lawmakers called for investigations and regulation. Some broadcasters dropped taboos on "hard" liquor ads, and there were demands for government action.

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission said there was no foundation for the alco-pop targeting charge, praised the industry move to a 70% adult audience standard and singled out progress (albeit slow) in opening up alcoholic beverage industry self-regulation programs to third party-participation and inspections.

The second report, by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences, called for a national effort against underage drinking. It sent sparks flying by calling for sharply higher beer taxes and urging an eventual move to still tighter standards on youth exposure to alcohol ads. But it conceded no "clear causal link" has been made between ads and youth drinking and acknowledged First Amendment restraints on "direct advertising restrictions" by government.

And, rather than ban ads, the NAS panel endorsed more "speech:" a big government-backed campaign on underage drinking aimed at parents and other adults.

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