The Booze Tube

Must teenagers be shielded from beer commercials?


"One quarter of alcohol advertising on television in 2001 was more likely to be seen by youth than adults," Georgetown University's Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) announced this week. Not only that, but "youth saw more commercals for beer than for juice, gum, chips, sneakers or jeans."

If your blood is not already boiling at the very thought of "youth" being "exposed" to ads for Budweiser and Mike's Hard Lemonade, you should have a look at CAMY's 20-page report, "Television: Alcohol's Vast Adland." It will outrage anyone who values intellectual honesty.

CAMY's main overt accusation is that manufacturers of alcoholic beverages are recklessly exposing "underage youths" (i.e., 12-to-20-year-olds) to ads that make drinking look fun. The report uses impressive-sounding figures to insinuate that the industry deliberately targets underage drinkers. But CAMY's calculations dissolve into banality upon close examination.

"In calendar year 2001," CAMY reports, "the alcohol industry…placed 1,441 ads on 13 of the the 15 prime time network programs with the largest teen audiences." Those shows included Survivor , Friends, E.R., CSI, That '70s Show, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer—all of which are popular with adults as well as minors. The shows on the list that seem to skew most toward teenagers are also the ones that attracted the fewest alcohol ads: 7th Heaven, for example, had five, while Gilmore Girls had six, compared to 429 for Friends and 382 for That '70s Show.

CAMY even complains about alcoholic beverage commercials on Saturday Night Live. Advertisers cannot reach large numbers of adult viewers, especially the young adults prized by beer and "malternative" producers, without also reaching large numbers of viewers who are not old enough to drink legally. How many shows on TV appeal to 21-year-olds but not to 20-year-olds?

Combine the impossibility of making such fine distinctions with the fact that 12-to-20-year-olds watch a lot of TV, and it's not exactly surprising that they see a lot of alcohol ads: 245 on average in 2001, according to CAMY. But so what?

CAMY claims "research clearly indicates that, in addition to parents and peers, alcohol advertising and marketing have a significant impact on youth decisions to drink." The first clue that the research does not clearly indicate this comes in the Federal Trade Commission statement that CAMY quotes: "While many factors may influence an underage person's drinking decisions, including among other things parents, peers and media, there is reason to believe that advertising also plays a role." Notice how CAMY has upgraded "a role" into "a significant impact" and transformed a hypothesis "there is reason to believe" into a fact that "research clearly indicates."

The reason for the FTC's cautious language is clear from the quality of the evidence CAMY offers to prove that ads make teenagers drink. It cites a couple of studies that found kids who recalled and liked alcohol ads more were more likely to drink or express an intention to do so. All such research shows is that a positive attitude toward drinking goes along with an affection for beer commercials. It does not show that the commercials cause the attitude.

The rest of CAMY's evidence is even lamer: kids' familiarity with the Budweiser frogs, surveys in which people express the opinion that ads make drinking more appealing, a statement by the National Association of Broadcasters that "radio and television audiences, particularly kids," like "clever jingles, flashy lights, fast talking, and quick pacing." The sad thing is that you have to assume CAMY is making the strongest case it can. It doesn't help that underage drinking has been declining in recent years. It's hard to whip up hysteria about a shrinking problem.

Even if the evidence that ads encourage underage drinking were stronger, brewers, vintners, and distillers would still have a First Amendment right to communicate with their customers. "No one is policing what the industry is doing," complains CAMY adviser David A. Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Yet CAMY Executive Director Mike O'Hara, who used to work for Kessler at the FDA, says the organization is not calling for Censorship—not right now, at least.

"We feel the first thing is to get the data out," O'Hara told The New York Times, "and then have a vigorous public policy debate about what are the appropriate public health protections for our youth." It's always good to have a vigorous debate before you force your opponents to shut up.