In September, the Federal Trade Commission reported to Congress that beer, wine, and liquor makers have dangerously loose standards regarding the marketing of booze to minors. While stopping short of recommending that the government regulate alcohol advertising, the report rattled the government's saber and has been taken by companies as a warning that they had better get onto this federal wagon.
The study, commissioned last August at the height of the national debate on tobacco, required eight companies to show they have complied with self-enforced industry advertising standards. The firms reporting included industry heavyweights Anheuser-Busch, Miller Brewing, Coors Brewing, and Seagram & Sons. Among other complaints, the report faults companies for placing alcohol in PG and PG-13 movies and running ads during TV shows with large underage audiences. Noting that 30 percent of the U.S. population is under the age of 21, the report implies that any program with a youth audience exceeding 30 percent should not portray drinking or have beer and wine ads.
The report recommends that the industry "voluntarily" adopt stricter standards and submit to third-party reviews by vaguely defined "independent external review boards." "We're optimistic they can adhere to these practices," said the report's main author, who added that "there has been no determination of what we would do next" should the industry fail to fall in line.
The FTC might start thinking about that. Despite federal optimism, industry execs are showing some rare, 90-proof courage in the face of the regulatory threat. "Underage drinking has gone down, not up," explains Francine Katz, vice president of consumer affairs for Anheuser-Busch. Indeed, according to Department of Health and Human Services data, teenage drinking has declined by 45 percent over the past 15 years. "We have always taken our responsibility seriously," says Katz. "Third-party review would be nothing but redundant at this point."