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Liquor Ads on TV: Is Federal Regulation Brewing?

If you’ve watched any television in your lifetime, chances are you’ve seen more than a few beer ads.

In fact, some of the most memorable advertisements in the history of the medium have been produced by beer makers, as they vigorously compete for customer allegiance. It’s just another part of doing business for beer companies, which depend on TV ads to build brand name recognition.

But if you’re a consumer who enjoys other spirits besides beer, you might be wondering why you never hear anything on TV about your favorite brands, or even competing liquor products. The reason you do not is because, for the past 50 years, the spirits industry has lived under a voluntary ban on the placement of liquor ads on TV. But as revenues have declined gradually over the past two increasingly health-conscious decades, the industry has rethought the wisdom of the ban and began cautiously testing the regulatory climate by placing ads on some local TV or cable stations. The debate over the wisdom of this reversal has been heating up nationally since NBC announced recently that they would allow liquor commercials to run during late-evening programming, making them the first national network to do so.

Not surprisingly, a lot of social do-gooders are up in arms over this and are demanding that federal policymakers take action to halt the practice. These fears seem to be based on the puritanical logic that if people see booze ads on TV, they will drink more. But such post hoc reasoning is faulty. Americans are not a mindless herd of robots who will make a mad dash to their local liquor stores just because they see a few TV ads.

In fact, Dr. Morris E. Chafetz, president of the Health Education Foundation and author of The Tyranny of Experts, argues that "the claim that advertising can lead anyone down the bottle-strewn garden path not only to drink alcohol but to abuse it, is pure hokum." In the mid-90s, Dr. Chafetz conducted a review of academic research for the New England Journal of Medicine on the question of how advertising affected alcohol use. His conclusion: "I did not find any studies that credibly connect advertising to increases in alcohol use (or abuse) or to young persons taking up drinking. The prevalence of reckless misinterpretation and misapplication of science allows advocacy groups and the media to stretch research findings to suit their preconceived positions."

But even though academic evidence suggests that exposure to advertising is unlikely to increase consumption, liquor companies are still willing to run ads, perhaps in an attempt to build brand recognition or attract beer and wine consumers. The question is, is there anything wrong with that?

The answer, of course, is all a matter of personal opinion. In a free society, however, people should be at liberty to make such choices without government entering the picture. Adults should be responsible for their decisions in this regard and they should exercise authority over their children until they reach an age when they can be trusted to make such decisions on their own. Employing the old "It’s about the children!" defense to support an ad ban doesn’t make sense for other reasons. As my Cato Institute colleague Doug Bandow noted in a 1997 Wall Street Journal editorial, "almost every good advertised on the airwaves may have some inadvertent adverse effect on the young," whether it is cars, riding mowers, high-fat food, or computers. "But that’s no excuse for banning ads," concludes Bandow.

Moreover, children can see liquor ads in magazines and newspapers too, so should we ban liquor ads in print? The Courts would strike down any such attempt to ban print ads as a blatant violation of the First Amendment. Yet, for years, electronic media (TV, radio) has received the equivalent of second-class citizenship in terms of First Amendment protection. That may be changing, however, since the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional bans on outdoor liquor ads and televised casino ads in two recent decisions arguing that policy makers cannot prohibit truthful speech about lawful products.

In conclusion, there has never been any logic behind the artificial distinction between liquor and other products, such as beer and wine, when it comes to promotional activities. Alcohol is alcohol. Why should the form in which it is delivered change its legal status? And why place advertising restrictions on lawful products at all? If someone was trying to sell crack cocaine or cruise missiles on TV, it might make for a more interesting debate. But alcohol is a legal product that manufacturers have every right to promote. Policymakers need to take a sober look at these realities before they rush headlong into needless and unconstitutional restrictions on liquor advertisements on TV.

Adam Thierer (athierer@cato.org) is director of telecommunications studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.