MillerCoors Under Fire for Raunchy, Soft Porn Ads for Controversial "Sparks" Energy Brew
Sponsored Videos on Heavy.com Aimed at 18+ Violate Industry’s Voluntary Advertising Code
WASHINGTON—Megabrewer MillerCoors is coming under fresh fire for advertising its caffeinated alcoholic drink Sparks with web videos that portray drug use, explicit sexual content, misogyny, and that otherwise exude general raunchiness. The company was already under investigation by state attorneys general and the target of a civil lawsuit filed earlier this week by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The video series, which casts men with dwarfism in a parody of HBO’s Entourage, is sponsored by Sparks, framed by ads for Sparks, and has cans of Sparks placed throughout two of the three episodes available on the Heavy.com web site. CSPI today notified the Beer Institute and the Federal Trade Commission that the "Tiny Entourage" ads violate the letter of the industry's voluntary marketing code and will serve as an important test of how, or whether, the industry can continue to self-regulate.
"Either this patently offensive ad campaign survives or self-regulation of beer advertising survives, but not both," said CSPI alcohol policies project director George A. Hacker. "This cynical, vulgar, and sexually explicit marketing campaign is an exercise in self-immolation on the part of MillerCoors. The only bright side is that it is likely to hasten the demise of this particularly dangerous niche of alcoholic drinks."
Earlier this week CSPI sued MillerCoors over Sparks, which has more alcohol than regular beer and contains unapproved additives, including the stimulants caffeine and guarana and the chicken-feed additive taurine. The lawsuit points to research that shows that drinkers ofcaffeinated alcoholic drinks are more likely to binge drink, ride with an intoxicated driver, become injured, or be taken advantage of sexually than drinkers of non-caffeinated alcoholic drinks.
Heavy.com is an advertising company founded in 1999 that specializes in ads aimed at men in their late teens and early 20s, according to a Heavy.com client quoted in a 2006 New York Times article. The site seamlessly incorporates advertising into short, youth-oriented video clips and cartoons with titles such as "Douche Off" or "Show Me Your Genitals 2." Another product-related series on the site features bikini-clad models promoting the "Axe Detail Shower Tool," a sponge designed to get "man parts" clean, according to AdWeek.
The Times paraphrases one of the company's founders as maintaining that young people see no difference between entertainment and advertising. Starbursts Gummi Bursts are also advertised at the site, further hinting at the site’s intended demographic, according to CSPI.
CSPI's lawsuit previously indicated that Sparks' own juvenile web site, offers a recipe for a drink called a "Lunchbox" and hints at Sparks as breakfast food. The formulation of the drink itself, which has a tart, candy-like taste, seems designed to appeal almost exclusively to young drinkers, according to CSPI.
Sparks contain 6 to 7 percent alcohol by volume, as opposed to regular beer, which typically has 4 or 5 percent alcohol. In October, MillerCoors plans to release Sparks Red, which will have 8 percent alcohol by volume.
"MillerCoors has reached new levels of irresponsibility in its marketing of caffeinated alcoholic beverages that put young people at risk for serious health and safety problems," Hacker wrote to MillerCoors CEO W. Leo Kiley. "We call on you to act immediately to clean up advertising for Sparks and pull these noxious concoctions off the market."
The Beer Institute’s voluntary advertising code has text prohibiting "language or images that are lewd and indecent," which would seem to specifically prohibit the Sparks ads, which use words and phrases such as "f---," "b--- j--," and "fat w----." Besides the Federal Trade Commission and the Beer Institute, CSPI copied its letter to the National Association of Attorneys General and to MillerCoors' parent companies, U.K.-based SABMiller and Molson Coors.
Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).