Statement of George A. Hacker
Director, Alcohol Policies Project
Press Conference on Alcohol Advertising Reforms
May 16, 1996

Since 1982, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has waged numerous campaigns to combat the indiscriminate advertising of alcoholic beverages to young people. We applaud Representative Joseph Kennedy today for his courageous and energetic leadership on alcohol advertising issues and for his introduction of an historic, comprehensive, six-pack of bills to help prevent alcohol problems. CSPI pledges its full support for Rep. Kennedy's proposals and looks forward to progress in our mutual efforts to crack down on alcohol advertising abuses. CSPI is only one of dozens of national health, consumer, childrens', education, religious, and other organizations which back Rep. Kennedy's efforts. Those groups together speak for some 35 million Americans.

Blasting tobacco advertising that appeals to children is popular and politically correct today. President Clinton and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler are among the many who have rightfully attacked tobacco company abuses. There is no better time than now to challenge advertising practices that similarly seduce young people to make unhealthy choices about alcohol.

According to Commissioner Kessler, addiction to nicotine is a "pediatric disease." If that's true for smoking, which kills users much later in life, then youthful alcohol consumption can only be deemed a "pediatric disaster." Let's look at the facts:

  • The median age at which children begin drinking alcohol is just over 13 years. 67 percent of students in the 8th grade have tried an alcoholic beverage.
  • The 1995 National Institute on Drug Abuse "Monitoring the Future" study found that 15 percent of 8th-graders, 24 percent of 10th-graders, and 30 percent of 12th-graders reported drinking five or more drinks in a row within two weeks of the survey.
  • Fifty-two percent of 12th-graders report having been drunk within the year. Among 8th- and 10th-graders, the reported drunkenness during the year was 18 percent and 39 percent, respectively.
  • Studies show that the earlier children begin to drink the more likely they are to become heavy drinkers, use illicit drugs and suffer problems related to their alcohol and drug use.
  • In 1993, nearly 10 percent (over 110,000) of the clients admitted to state-funded alcohol treatment programs were under the age of 21.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that there are 11 million underage alcohol consumers. Of that number, 2 million drink heavily.
  • Alcohol is the leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24. They die in alcohol-related car crashes, drownings, fires, homicides, and suicides.

In the face of this youth crisis, brewers have unleashed a withering advertising assault on young people. A look at just some of the practices of America's -- and the world's -- largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch, illustrates that the company is in a league with tobacco giants Philip Morris Co. (also the producer of Miller Beer) and RJ Reynolds Tobacco in attracting underage consumers to its brands.

Consider the menagerie of cute animals used to promote Budweiser products: frogs, ants, penguins, dogs, chimpanzees, and horses -- many of them animated, funny, accompanied by the throbbing beat of rock 'n' roll, and clearly attractive to young children. One has to wonder whether the new emphasis on animals owes its inspiration to the stunning popularity of the hit family movie "Babe," which features a precocious, talking pig.

These animal characters may not yet have personalities as fully developed as Joe Camel, who fronts for RJ Reynolds' Camel cigarettes. However, a growing body of evidence reveals that these ads attract, amuse, entertain, and teach young people, even young children, about beer. Budweiser's trio of syllable frogs, who croak "Bud-Weis-Er" in various patterns until they form the brand's name, provides a good example of a campaign that unscrupulously appeals to children.

According to USA TODAY's Ad Track poll, the frog series has made Budweiser advertising the most popular on television, helping to turn the fortunes of the sagging megabrand around. Bob Lachky, Budweiser vice president for marketing, says that the "frog spots are especially popular among core 21- to 27-year-old consumers." The USA TODAY survey found them to be the most popular among 18-24 year-olds, 88% of whom liked them. No wonder that August Busch IV recently crowed that Budweiser is "once again gaining acceptance among entry-level drinkers."

Even younger children love the frogs. After all, they grow up on a diet of frog stories, such as A Frog Prince and the Frog and Toad easy-reader series. No wonder that children's consumer behavior expert, James McNeal, author of Customers, and a Professor of Marketing at Texas A&M University, writes, in a chapter on advertising to children, that "[c]hildren often value frogs; adults often don't."

ADWEEK Magazine suggests another child connection for the croaking frog ads. It seems that Michael Smith, the art director for the initial frog ad, had a pet frog named Bud when he was a kid. ADWEEK columnist Barbara Lippert noted that "the [frog presentation] idea sprang full-born from his head."

Research also confirms that adolescents recognize the frogs and like them. A recent study by the San Francisco-based Center on Alcohol Advertising tested commercial and character recall among 9 to 11 year-old children. The results: the children demonstrated higher recall (73%) of the Budweiser frogs' slogan than of the slogans associated with other television animal characters, including Tony the Tiger (57%), Smokey Bear (43%), and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (39%). Only Bugs Bunny did slightly better, at 80% recall of "Eh, what's up doc?" Overall, 81% of the children surveyed identified beer as the product promoted by the frogs.

Another study on beer advertising collected open-ended comments from hundreds of pre-teens and teens. In this study by CSPI and the Children of Alcoholics Foundation, the Budweiser frog ad was the one most frequently mentioned and the only ad mentioned by name, although the study never referred to it. Of all brands, Budweiser was the brand most frequently referenced. Here's what kids say about the frogs: "The commercials are better if they are creative, such as the Budweiser frogs;" "The ads look cool like the Budweiser frogs;" "The commercials need more people like the frogs...;" "I watch ads because they are funny, like the Budweiser frog commercial;" "The Budweiser frog commercial was cool."

Very young children may even be getting a reading lesson when they recognize the connected Budweiser brand croaked by the "syllable" frogs, "Bud," "Weis," and "Er." Dr. Lynne Putnam, Associate Professor of Reading at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University, a specialist in emergent literacy, concludes that "the croaking frog ad functions like a very appealing reading lesson to introduce children to the Budweiser name. The ad has a story-book-like illustration quality. Children have an ear for rhyme and word-play, and therefore, the meta-linguistic play of audible syllables, which come together just as the Budweiser sign appears, would rivet some children's attention, depending on their stage of emergent reading and other factors."

Child psychiatrist Marilyn Benoit, Medical and Executive Director of the Devereux Children's Center in Georgetown and Chairperson of the Television and Media Committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, also charges that the Budweiser frogs appeal to young people: "Children identify with animals, gravitate toward them, and open up to them. Animals capture their attention. Kids become almost mesmerized by the ads, and in that state of consciousness, it is easy to get their attention; young children are particularly receptive and associate the messages with a positive feeling state. The indelible message kids receive is "beer is good and it's part of the good life."

Yet another Anheuser-Busch brew, Bud Light, seems to appeal primarily to underage audiences. According to Sound Data, Inc., a market research firm that tracks the music industry, 26% of active music consumers who say they either "like" or "strongly like" the Jerky Boys, adolescent-style pranksters who star in a new series of Bud Light ads, are under 21. In comparison, only 7% of the respondents who admit liking them are 21-24 years old and 5% are 25-34 years old.

Representative Kennedy's "six-pack" of bills will help reduce the pressure on young people to drink. For a change, a federal agency would take a comprehensive look at alcohol advertising and its effects on young people; a public hearing process would allow parents and health workers to air their views of a $1 billion advertising onslaught that mesmerizes kids with cartoon and sports images and comic animals. Producers would no longer be permitted to market to a captive audience of underage persons on college campuses.

Much the same as FDA-proposed rules would protect children from advertising appeals for tobacco products, Rep. Kennedy's "Children's Protection from Alcohol Advertising Act" would eliminate advertising and marketing practices that have the most impact on young people. Remaining ads would, for the first time, honestly reflect that alcohol is the number-three killer in America today, taking a toll of 100,000 lives yearly. Those ads would bear a rotating series of health and safety messages, reminding all viewers and listeners of some of the major risks related to drinking. In addition, alcoholic-beverage product labels, for the first time, would be required to reveal comprehensive, useful consumer information, such as ingredients, calories, and alcohol content, expressed in unit serving terms.

Two bills also provide fundamental fairness for taxpayers, who would be spared the indignity and expense of subsidizing alcohol producers' advertising and the promotion of drinking by potential foreign customers.

Rep. Kennedy's bills embrace the concerns of millions of parents and thousands of communities across the nation. They recognize that alcohol is the most widespread and devastating drug problem in America. Failure to respond to Rep. Kennedy's initiatives will sacrifice yet more young Americans to a fate of alcohol addiction and alcohol and drug abuse. We call upon the House of Representatives and its relevant committees to protect America's children and families from promotions for America's number-one drug. We ask that those committee chairpersons schedule hearings on the Kennedy bills and move them to passage as soon as possible.

To read CSPI's May 16th press release click here