ST. LOUIS – Anheuser-Busch is using cutting-edge technology to launch its online television channel that will beam Budweiser-themed shows to personal computers and cell phones.
But when it comes to making sure that the 24-hour-a-day broadcasts of Bud.TV don't reach underage drinkers, the nation's biggest brewer is using a decidedly old-fashioned technique: The honor system.
When the site goes live in February, it will be up to underage drinkers and their parents to keep them from viewing the standup comedy, sports events and reality shows that encourage loyalty to Anheuser-Busch brands.
Anheuser-Busch Cos. executives emphasize that the multimillion-dollar Internet ad campaign will only target young beer drinkers from the ages of 21 to 27.
Bud.TV will use the same age restriction method currently used by most alcohol industry Web sites, including those run by Anheuser-Busch and its biggest competitors, Miller Brewing Co. and Molson Coors Brewing (TAP).
Viewers must enter their birth date before entering, and only those who say they are 21 or older can continue. But unlike other industries, big brewers don't verify the information by checking it against government records, according to those inside and outside the industry.
Anheuser-Busch and outside analysts say Bud.TV is more elaborate than existing brewer sites and is designed to take Internet alcohol advertising to a new level. The brewer will sign big-name stars such as actorVince Vaughn to produce original shows. Bud.TV will also imitate hugely popular sites such as YouTube, allowing viewers to make and show their own ads for Budweiser and other products.
Underage viewers could use false information to enter the site and Anheuser-Busch wouldn't know, said Tony Ponturo, Anheuser-Busch's vice president of global media and sports marketing.
"To some degree we have to trust the registration," Ponturo said. Anheuser-Busch wants to discourage underage viewers from seeing Bud.TV, he said.
"You're going to see — we think at least for this site — by having this registration, it's putting our best foot forward to eliminate that," Ponturo said. He noted that Anheuser-Busch has a voluntary policy of not advertising in magazines or on TV shows where more than 30 percent of the target audience is too young to legally drink.
There is growing concern about alcohol ads reaching teenagers though the Internet, said George Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policy Project at the Center for Science the Public Interest.
Hacker called voluntary age registration "a farce" that lets alcohol advertisements draw teenage crowds.
"The Internet provides a wider range of opportunities to not only reach younger and younger consumers, including underage drinkers, but also greater means of interaction with them, which is very important," Hacker said.
Voluntary registration has failed in the past to keep minors off of Anheuser-Busch sites that advertise Budweiser and Bud Light, said David H. Jernigan, executive director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University.
Jernigan said the center's 2003 study found that 34 percent of "in-depth" visitors to the Bud Light site were underage, while 15 percent of such visitors to the Budweiser page were underage. In-depth visitors spend time on the site and view different pages, he said.
Jernigan said 700,000 underage viewers went to 55 alcohol-related Web sites during six months of 2003, about 13 percent of the total. Anheuser-Busch sites had the most underage viewers with about 90,000, he said.
"The research shows that the more alcohol advertising that kids are exposed to, the more likely they are to drink and to drink more if they already drink," Jernigan said.
That study didn't examine if alcohol companies target kids on purpose, he said.
"Our research doesn't show that they're doing it intentionally. Our research does show that what they're doing simply exposes a lot of kids" to alcohol advertising, Jernigan said.
Parents should bear some responsibility for keeping children away from inappropriate Web sites, said Anheuser-Busch Vice President Jim Schumacker, who will oversee Bud.TV.
"We feel there should be some accountability," Schumacker said. "I would want to know what my kids are doing. I would not let them get on this Web site — there are a lot of Web sites I would not let them get on. They might not be happy about it, but that's the rule of the household."
Internet filtering software such as CyberPatrol lets parents block any site they choose on their home computer.
Movie studios and tobacco companies commonly use age verification techniques that probe far deeper than alcohol companies, said John Phillips, chief executive of Aristotle International Inc. His company sells programs to screen Internet users. A division called Integrity specifically screens viewers based on age.
Phillips' program asks viewers for their name and address along with their birth date, he said.
Aristotle checks that information against a government database to verify it. For more rigorous checks, viewers give part or all of a driver's license number, which is checked. Sometimes Aristotle employees call a home telephone number to verify the information.
If the information doesn't add up, Aristotle informs their client company, which can choose to block the viewer from their Web site, Philips said.
"The fact of the matter is that these kinds of procedures are happening a million times a day," Phillips said. "You don't have to be asking for a lot of information from the consumer."
Movie studios use the screening for "R-rated" previews, while networks like HBO use it to for adult-oriented shows, he said.
Phillips said most industries adopted the technology voluntarily. Movie studios use it because of a standard set by the Motion Picture Association of America. Tobacco companies use the screening because of a mandate in a 1998 agreement that ended a massive class action lawsuit, Phillips said.
None of the methods are foolproof, Phillips said. But they cut down on improper Internet viewing.
"There's a real big gap between doing nothing and doing something," he said.