Every time this comes up, I get worked up about it all over again. Today I received a constituent newsletter from my State Representative, Mr. Greg Harris. One of the things he is bragging about is legislation he sponsored "to ban the promotion, marketing and advertising of alcoholic beverages to children."
To me, that phrase is like waving a red cloth in front of a bull. So, of course, I sent Rep. Harris a stern letter of complaint, as follows:
Dear Representative Harris:
Although alcohol abuse is a serious social problem, and preventing children from obtaining and consuming alcohol is a worthy cause, I am disappointed to see that you support a phony solution. I know Senate Bill 1625 is now law, but I wanted to let you know my opinions on this matter anyway, as I expressed them to Senator Ronen when this legislation was introduced back in January.
It always bothers me when well-meaning people lie in support of a genuinely worthy cause, especially when kids are involved, but that is what the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association (IADDA), and now The State of Illinois, has done with this legislation to supposedly “ban(s) the promotion, marketing and advertising of alcoholic beverages to children.”
Lying to kids, even when it is for their own good, almost never works out the way we want it to. Let there be no doubt that I consider keeping kids away from psychoactive drugs of all kinds, including cigarettes and alcohol, to be desirable. But teaching kids to tell the truth is worthwhile too and we do kids no favors by lying to them. When they find out that we have lied to them about something like this (and they always find out), why should they believe us when we tell them about all the real harm the misuse of psychoactive substances can cause?
When this legislation was introduced, IADDA spokesperson Allen Sandusky accused beverage makers of targeting youth media with ads for so-called "alcopops" such as Bacardi Silver, Smirnoff Ice and Mike's Hard Lemonade.
"This is just like Joe Camel cigarettes that were advertised to kids years ago," said Sandusky. Senator Ronen made almost the identical statement at her subsequent press conference announcing the introduction of SB 1625.
They are the same, in that anti-tobacco crusaders lied about Joe Camel and now anti-alcohol crusaders are lying about “alcopops.”
The truth is as follows.
Advertising that used the character dubbed "Joe Camel" was deemed to be directed at children solely because the character was illustrated. Illustrations, especially those that can be characterized as cartoons, appeal to children, ergo Joe Camel was being used to advertise cigarettes to children. It became an article of faith among anti-smoking crusaders, then came to be treated as a statement of fact. There was never one iota of evidence presented that Joe Camel was intended to influence children or ever used in such a way as to reach children. The charge was based solely on the assumption that Joe Camel must be targeted at children because he is a cartoon character.
Likewise, "alcopop" is a term of derision coined by anti-alcohol crusaders. It is meant to describe flavored malt beverages such as the brands mentioned. These products start out as beer but are processed in a way that removes the characteristic flavor and color of beer, which is then replaced by other flavorings and sweeteners. The flavoring is usually some kind of citrus fruit, such as lemon, lime or orange. Consequently, they taste like a soft drink (e.g., 7Up) but contain alcohol, about the same amount as beer. These products have been around for many years – the Coors product Zima was the prototype. They have become more prominent recently, but have not been the success many in the beverage industry expected.
These products are deemed by their critics to be directed at children solely because they taste good, and taste similar to soda pop. However, these products also appeal to a great many legal age drinkers who want to consume a beverage alcohol product but don’t like the characteristic taste of beer. Functionally, these products are little different from a mixed drink that combines a neutral spirit, such as vodka or white rum, with a soft drink such as 7Up. The fact that most of these products bear the names of well-known distilled spirits brands is further evidence that they are not trying to pretend they are anything other than alcoholic beverages intended for legal age adults.
The beverage industry has never called them “pop” or used any terminology that would lead anyone to compare these products to soft drinks. The anti-alcohol crusaders have done all of that.
Two additional facts of relevance. First, most beverage alcohol advertising is directed at young adults, as is most advertising for automobiles, music, electronics, clothing, health and beauty aids, and a wide range of other consumer products. Young adults are attractive to advertisers because they are still forming their brand preferences. This is Marketing 101. Also fundamental is that there is no way to create advertising that will appeal to persons of legal age but won't appeal to anyone younger than legal age. There is not some kind of switch that is thrown at age 18 or 21. Kids, especially older kids, like many of the same things young adults like. It is not possible to effectively advertise to persons at the low end of the legal age scale without some of that advertising reaching individuals at the high end of non-legal age.
All of this is common sense that anyone short of a blinkered fanatic should be able to accept. It is why most claims that certain products or ads are nefariously "directed at children" are, at best, an unfounded personal opinion and, at worst, a deliberate falsehood.
The second fact is this. There is one objective way to determine if advertising is "directed at children," and that is by examining the medium in which it is run and determining who views or hears that medium. The standard followed by the beverage alcohol industry (similar to that followed by the tobacco industry before cigarette advertising was effectively banned) is that advertising for those products is placed only in magazines, on television shows, or on radio shows where at least 70 percent of the audience is expected to be adults. The Federal Trade Commission has consistently found that the beverage alcohol industry adheres to those guidelines and, therefore, does not market to underage consumers.
I am aware that SB 1625 primarily targets outdoor advertising, not the specific media mentioned above, but it still is fundamentally dishonest and a disservice to the very people it is meant to protect. With a little bit of honest examination, I think you can see that SB 1625 and the noise surrounding it has been simple demagoguery, wholly empty and phony. The law is so vague that it probably is unenforceable and it will not do anything remotely like what you and its other supporters say it will do to “help prevent alcohol abuse.”
I am very disappointed to see my state representative associated with such a sorry piece of work. I continue to expect better.
Charles K. Cowdery