Booze sites accused of targeting teens

WASHINGTON (03/17/2004) - Despite advertising codes that put restrictions on the marketing of alcohol to minors, nearly 700,000 underage visitors spend considerable time browsing alcohol-related sites, a new Georgetown University study finds.

The alcohol industry spends more than US$4.5 billion yearly on advertising and marketing, according to the university's Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth. An increasing amount is spent online: In 2002, the industry spent $21.6 million on banner ads, more than twice its online spending in the previous year.

"Underage youth are exposed heavily to this marketing with its youthful themes and images and its placements in media with large youth audiences," according to the report, "Clicking with Kids: Alcohol Marketing and Youth on the Internet." For example, Anheuser-Busch Inc.'s Budweiser Web site has marketing tie-ins with youth-oriented bands like Switchfoot and movies like Jim Carrey's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Exposure to alcohol marketing affects the way young people think about drinking and whether they're likely to start, the study suggests.

Recurring Concerns

"These alcohol Web sites are a virtual cyber-playground with no adult supervision," says Jim O'Hara, CAMY executive director, in a statement. "The alcohol industry is failing in its responsibilities to America's parents and children."

Anheuser-Busch disagrees. "The bottom line is that preventing underage drinking is best addressed through educational efforts that involve retailers, parents, and teens themselves," the company responds in a statement.

Web filters and entrance pages that require birth dates help stop underage visitors to the companies' Web sites, the alcohol industry notes. Still, the latest study calls these measures ineffectual.

Checking birth dates as a requirement to entering a site was one suggestion of a 1999 U.S. Federal Trade Commission report. That earlier study was prompted by complaints from the Center for Media Education. At that time, the FTC advised the alcohol industry to revamp its approach to advertising with an eye toward reducing underage appeal.

Before 1999, the industry's own guidelines required that more than 50 percent of the audience for ads be over 21. The FTC pointed out that, because only 30 percent of the United States' population is younger than 21, the 50 percent mark disproportionately skews advertising toward younger people.

Last year when the FTC revisited the issue, it found that some marketing strategies had improved. But the Commission did acknowledge that "no technologies ... permitted advertisers to limit site entry to those who could be determined to be of legal age."

An Anheuser-Busch spokesperson agrees. The company requires a birth date to enter its site, but notes it can't actually be enforced.

"Our age-check system is designed to remind site visitors of our policy of marketing only to adults," he says.

Blocking Options

CAMY also examined several major parental control software packages for their effectiveness in blocking access to alcohol-oriented Web sites.

Microsoft's MSN 8.0, released in fall 2002 and updated since then, is recognized by the study as capable of blocking alcohol-related sites 99 percent of the time.

Many other filters were deemed not sufficient, but the CAMY study says MSN 8.0's success "demonstrates that it is technologically possible to remove youth access to alcohol sites."

The FTC describes the content of most alcoholic beverage sites as mild. However, the CAMY study finds youth-targeted games, provocative computer screen savers and wallpapers, and frequent interactive or high-tech features on beer Web sites.

The study cites examples of "video games such as car races, air hockey, and pinball, as well as downloadable customized music, interactive accessories and other content considered attractive to youth."

Newell writes for the Medill News Service.

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