Youth Appeal

Self-appointed Web watchers are worried that virtual smoking and drinking might lead to the real thing.


"The Budweiser frogs are particularly troubling." Troubling is not the adjective I would have chosen. I could see cute, or maybe amusing. After seeing them a few hundred times, annoying springs to mind. But not troubling. I am trying to get inside the mind of someone who could say that with a straight face, but it's scary in there, and I'm not sure I want to go.

I am reading Alcohol & Tobacco on the Web: New Threats to Youth, a report issued in March by the Center for Media Education. The authors are Wendy Swallow Williams, a former Washington Post reporter who is now a journalism professor at American University; CME President Kathryn Montgomery, "a leading expert on television and media"; and Shelly Pasnik, the CME's director of children's policy, who also had a hand in Web of Deception: Threats to Children from Online Marketing. Williams et al. conclude that "[u]rgent action is needed to ensure that effective safeguards are put in place to protect young people from the harmful effects of online marketing of alcohol and tobacco."

Among other things, they recommend congressional hearings, an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, regulation by the Food and Drug Administration, inquiries by public health agencies, and efforts by the World Health Organization and "the international health community" to develop "effective global safeguards." They never spell out what they mean by "safeguards," but it's clear they have some sort of censorship in mind. "Self-regulation is likely to have little impact," they say, "unless there is effective government oversight and enforcement."

The rationale for censoring the Web goes like this: "The increasing presence of alcohol and tobacco marketing in these powerful new interactive media could pose great public health risks, especially for young people." Yet the authors never provide any evidence (and in fact there is precious little) that advertising and promotion, on the Web or anywhere else, increase consumption of alcohol and tobacco, as opposed to increasing consumption of particular brands. They simply assume that exposure to advertising will lead kids to drink and smoke, and they go a step further, attributing quasi-magical powers to the Web. "[I]nteractivity has a hypnotic and addictive quality that some analysts believe could be stronger than that of television," they warn. "Because of the unique nature of the interactive media, many of these new forms of advertising, of particular appeal to youth, appear to be inherently unfair and deceptive."

The report is about an inch thick, but the verbose and repetitive text occupies just 35 pages in 12-point type, including a five-page "Executive Summary." The rest is notes, lists, and (mainly) printouts of Web pages. On the face of it, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, both of which supported the study, did not get much for their money. Yet Alcohol & Tobacco on the Web generated a front-page story in The New York Times ("On Web, New Threats Seen to the Young") and received respectful coverage from other major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.

It's not hard to see why. The CME's "major investigation," which The New York Times dubbed "the first comprehensive look at how alcohol and tobacco companies are marketing in cyberspace," combines three hot themes: children, drugs, and the Internet.

Exploiting parents' fears about the dangers lurking in cyberspace, already primed by rumors of rampant pornographers and child molesters, Williams et al. warn that alcohol- and tobacco-related Web sites are making "seductive appeals to youth, drawing them into an electronic world of indulgence, freedom, glamor, and fun, where smoking and drinking are the norm, and the negative consequences are never shown. In these realms of cyberspace, dangerous new behaviors can be fostered and reinforced at a particularly vulnerable period in the lives of young people." Although the Internet could be a force for good, "educational and civic services are in danger of being overshadowed and undermined by highly manipulative, intrusive, and harmful marketing methods with an unprecedented ability to capture children's attention."

Take the frogs. "A recent study by the Center on Alcohol Advertising," Williams et al. note with alarm (the way they note just about everything), "found that children aged 9 to 11 were more likely to be able to say the frogs' slogan ('Bud-weis-er') than that of Kellogg's Tony the Tiger"–who, the authors helpfully inform us, "is used heavily on kid's TV to sell Frosted Flakes." If you wanted to quibble, you might wonder whether there's a reason, aside from Anheuser-Busch's nefarious designs on our children, why "Bud-weis-er" is an especially memorable slogan for Budweiser. You might also wonder whether there isn't an important difference between saying it and drinking it. (In a recent survey of teenagers by USA Today, 99 percent knew the Budweiser frogs, and 93 percent liked them, but almost none named Budweiser as their favorite brand of beer.)

Never mind. The real reason the frogs are so troubling, we learn later in the same paragraph, is that they "seem to have a lot in common with college-age drinkers." As evidence for this assertion, the report cites the biography of Budbrew J. Frog (the one who says "Bud"), which appears in "The Pad," part of the Budweiser Web site. Elected president of his campus fraternity during rush week in 1989 (as a pledge!), Bud "drives a German luxury car, has memorized the entire Oxford English Dictionary and likes to hang on the beach with a hot babe, a cold Bud and a folio edition of the Kama Sutra in its original Sanskrit." Yes, that sounds just like the typical college student.

As the frog example suggests, the report is rather vague about who is threatened by Alcohol & Tobacco on the Web. What, exactly, is a "youth"? On the first page, we're told that "nearly five million youth between the ages of two and seventeen used the Internet or an online service from school or home in 1996." So a toddler is a "youth." On the next page, we learn that "the unique properties of the interactive online media…are particularly appealing to children and youth." So a "child" is not a "youth." On page 4, the authors worry that "[s]creening devices will do little to protect youth in college." Now we're at 18 and older. To confuse things further, on page 32 there's a reference to "underage youth," implying that some "youth" are old enough to buy tobacco and alcohol legally (over 18 and 21, respectively). Where I come from, we have another word for that sort of youth. We call him an "adult." By the time the conclusion rolls around, of course, the authors are talking about "children" again.

This slippery use of language disguises important realities. When it comes to drinking, for example, there's a big difference between a fifth-grader and a college sophomore, both of whom Williams et al. classify as helpless "youths." They call college students "one of the most vulnerable targets of alcohol marketing" and worry that manufacturers, "through the computer,…have a direct line into the dorm room of nearly every student." (Cool. Does it dispense beer?) This is supposed to send a chill down your spine, but it's hard to get worked up about the possibility that college students might check out the Web sites for Absolut vodka or Zima. They see plenty of ads for beer, wine, and liquor on TV, in magazines, and on billboards, and it seems unlikely that a visit to the Republic of Cuervo Gold will tip the balance in favor of inebriation, especially since they're already drinking. That's what college students do, wherever the legal purchase age happens to be located. But the CME's self-appointed Web watchers want us to pretend that 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds are naive teetotalers who might be lured into a life of drinking and debauchery by images on their computer screens.

With such an elastic concept of "youth," it's hard to tell what Williams et al. mean by "youth-oriented devices," "techniques attractive to youth," or "Web sites that target youth." They say "[t]his investigation focused on the role of alcohol and tobacco companies on the Web, with particular emphasis on documenting those practices that target, or are accessible by, youth." Since everything on the Web is "accessible by" anyone with a computer and Internet service, this is not very helpful. "To assess whether Web sites targeted young people," the report adds, "we looked at whether the sites used music, personalities or graphics attractive to college- or high-school-aged students, and whether there were contests, sponsorship of youth-oriented music or sports events, interactive games, online magazines (e-zines) on popular culture, brand characters or other promotional devices that would interest young people."

The test for whether something "would interest young people" seems to have been formulated without actually consulting anyone young. The authors made some strange judgments. Samuel Adams, for example, is on their list of "large breweries with corporate Web sites that target youth." Visiting the Sam Adams site, one is hard pressed to figure out what they had in mind. Was it the colonial-style illustrations, the photos of the brewery, the tasting notes, the "beer education"? At the Bass Ale site, which also made the list, you can tour the Bass Ale Museum, learn about the ale's history, do the Bass crossword puzzle, or order items from the gift shop, including pint glasses, pub towels, and Dickens T-shirts. But it's Guinness that is most clearly going after the kiddies, offering information on the Guinness All-Ireland Hurling Championship and the Guinness "Win Your Own Pub in Ireland" Contest. The authors also seem to be under the impression that J&B, Dewar's, and Chivas Regal (all listed under "liquor companies with Web sites that target youth") are popular with teenagers.

Even the alcohol-related Web sites that feature games, snazzy graphics, "virtual bars," or coverage of pop culture are not necessarily aimed at underage drinkers. After all, such things are not the exclusive province of teenagers, and the hipper sites (the kind Williams et al. are apt to consider "youth-oriented") include features that suggest an older audience. The Goldschlager site offers an interview with Joey Ramone and a review of a Pharoah Sanders album, and it has links to cigar.com and DineNet, which provides menus from restaurants in various cities. The Budweiser site has a chat room and posters of bikini-clad women, which might appeal to adolescents, but it also sells fishing vests and offers an online magazine, The Great Outdoors, with articles on conservation and hunting and shooting safety–not exactly kids' stuff. Williams et al. seem blind to such cues. As an example of a music event "with particular appeal to young people," they cite a blues musicians' tour sponsored by Southern Comfort. I suppose some teenagers drink bourbon and listen to the blues, but I don't know any.

Although Williams et al. emphasize pages sponsored by manufacturers of alcoholic beverages, these represent only 35 out of about 250 alcohol-related sites they examined. The rest consist of vendors, online magazines, and personal sites (homepages offering beer recipes, lists of favorite pubs, rules for drinking games, wine information, and so on). Presumably, "effective global safeguards" and "effective government oversight and enforcement" would need to be directed against not just Budweiser but also Cocktail magazine and Andrew Wilson's Simpsons Drinking Game.

Manufacturers play a smaller role in the 50 or so smoking-related sites perused by the CME. The researchers found only three sites that actually advertised cigarettes–all in German. Not to worry. "Because of the ephemeral nature of the Web, content can change very rapidly," the authors assure us. "It is important to remember that, just because something is not there yet, doesn't mean it will never emerge." They also note (over and over again) that Brown & Williamson sponsors an online magazine called Circuit Breaker, promoted in ads for Lucky Strike, that offers free T-shirts (but makes no mention of cigarettes). In describing the other tobacco sites–which include magazines, personal homepages, and sites sponsored by smokers' rights groups–the authors repeatedly say that, while no industry connection is apparent, the possibility of secret support cannot be ruled out.

This obsession with corporate ties is odd, since it's clearly the message, not the messenger, that bothers Williams and her co-authors. "A pervasive online Smoking-Is-Cool culture has emerged on the World Wide Web which runs contrary to the prevailing attitudes among most Americans about smoking and health," they complain. "The smokers on the Web appear to have a strong sense of community. There are many links between the lifestyle sites and the pro-smoking organizations, so it is easy for a Web surfer to find one from the other."

A Web site devoted to clove cigarettes offers detailed information about the product's special hazards. As far as the authors are concerned, that's not good enough, because "this site also promotes clove cigarettes as sophisticated and exciting." It's "a good example of how the Web's ability to bring together far-flung people with like-minded interests can manifest as a troubling force. This site gives the few individuals who smoke clove cigarettes a forum for sharing their unique and dangerous habit." It's bad enough that dissidents dare to question "prevailing attitudes." But to have so many of them expressing their deviant views and freely associating with each other in cyberspace is just intolerable. Something must be done. We need effective safeguards.

The Smoker's Home Page opens with a caveat: "WARNING! This page may be hazardous to anti-smokers' blood pressure. Quitting now may greatly reduce your chances of moral outrage." Williams et al. should have listened. "The site has a hip, rebellious tone, and avidly promotes smokers' rights," they note with horror. "The topics…are very pro-smoking, with no attempt to balance the presentation of the issues." To top it all off, "In this entire study not a single Surgeon General's warning was found on any tobacco site."

Occasionally, the report's authors remember that they're supposed to be talking about the threat to "youth" posed by these distasteful Web sites. Then they throw in comments like, "Some of these sites have elements that could be attractive to youth, particularly young teenagers curious about smoking."

To show how The Smoker's Home Page appeals to "young people," Williams et al. note that the site "offers smoking-related audio, including songs from such popular groups as the Doors, the Beatles, Alanis Morrisette, and the Rolling Stones." The kids today–they love the Stones. Dismayed by "the astonishing proliferation of cigar sites," Williams et al. observe that "[t]he majority of computer users are still young, well-educated, middle-class males in their twenties and thirties, just the target market cigar companies are seeking." Two pages later, they warn that "the lifestyle culture and glamor used to sell cigars could be attractive to under-age smokers." Please. Bring back the frogs.