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March 12, 2004

Shilling Alcohol To Impressionable Young Adults

FROM EVERYWHERE come suggestions and strategies on how to deal with the alcohol abuse crisis that has chokeholded American campuses.

Today’s pervasive college lifestyle features alcohol consumption, with beer the consensus “starter” drink.

And now, many forward-thinking thought leaders are suggesting that beer advertising be banned from college sports telecasts, particularly during NCAA March Madness. Alcohol-related TV ads during the NCAA basketball tournament in 2002 totaled $28 million. This was almost half of the combined $58 million spent on all college sports in 2002.

Due to widespread budget cutbacks, many schools are in a revenue crunch. The big money for TV rights is very tempting, even though much of the ad money comes from beer companies.

To many it seems immensely unwise to fuel the fire that is burning you. And how badly is alcohol abuse burning college students? Nationally, about 1400 student deaths and about 500,000 injuries are attributable to alcohol abuse.

Others, however, see nothing wrong with taking beer money.

NCAA spokesman Jeff Howard said of beer ads during college games, "We don’t feel it’s inconsistent with our mission." Ahem.

"Anheuser-Busch is our No. 1 corporate client when it comes to cash," said Mario Moccia, Missouri associate AD. "We are proud of our affiliation. We have to deal with real-world revenue issues." Ahem.

Leading the charge for reform is the Center for Science in the Public Interest. CSPI’s Campaign for Alcohol-Free Sports TV has targeted 1200 schools to pledge elimination of alcohol-related television ads during sports events. As of March 9, 105 schools had signed up, including Ohio State University.

"It’s inconsistent to say you want to discourage underage drinking and turn around and huckster the stuff on your broadcasts," said Andy Geiger, Ohio State AD.

Beer industry officials deny their advertising targets underage drinkers and say there’s no evidence that advertising encourages drinking among college students. Ahem. Isn’t that what the cigarette marketers said?

When it comes to regulations and restrictions, alcohol (especially beer) often follows tobacco’s lead. One needs only to look how cigarette manufacturers have been boxed in to get a glimpse of what could be the future for beer marketing.

Since both are legal products, the constitutional protections of speech and expression make government intervention problematic. These constitutional freedoms are huge roadblocks to legislation that would limit push-and-pull brand building and sales promotion activities in the marketplace.

A recent example of restricted marketing comes from the NASCAR racing circuit, whose championship series had been branded the “Winston Cup” for many years. Anticipating annoyance and aggravation afflicted by anti-tobacco activists, R.J. Reynolds bailed out this year with its Winston sponsorship. This season the vroomingly popular series is now known as the “NASCAR Nextel Cup.”

Is beer next? The absence of beer advertising on college sports telecasts is one thing, but would pro sports telecasts be next? What would the Super Bowl be without risqué beer ads tastelessly created for the lowest common denominator?

When marketing restrictions kick in, market share leaders usually solidify their dominance. In the absence of advertising and promotion, the category leaders generally hold—or increase—their share. Meanwhile, they pocket the “found money” no longer needed for marketing.

Thus, the King of Beers could become the forever King.

(this excerpt was drawn from an article in the Palm Springs Desert Sun of 3-11-04; along with commentary by College Athletics Clips)