Alcohol & Tobacco Advertising On The Web As adults, how do we encourage our children to explore the rich resources of the Internet without exposing them to a steady stream of marketing massages, such as junk e-mail, sexually explicit material and hate-mail? This is a question that many people in our society, including parents and educators are struggling to answer. Although we have yet to reach a consensus on this matter, one possible solution is to filter or block this objectionable material from our children without interfering with the rights of adults to view and visit any Web site they like. When the US Supreme Court overturned the Communications Decency Act in June of 1997, industry and government officials alike looked to computer technology companies to create screening and/or filtering products to fill the gap left by this court decision. During a White House meeting in July 1997, about the Internet, President Bill Clinton set forth a plan for a family friendly Internet that would include as a key element filtering, blocking, and rating tools for parents, educators, and other concerned adults. Much of the debate about appropriate content has focused on the spread of sexually explicit materials online.
Yet pornography is not the only concern we should focus on when protecting our children. Virtually every major alcoholic beverage manufacturing company – from brewing companies such as Budweiser and Samuel Adams to liquor companies such as Jose Cuervo and Bacardi – has setup shop in cyberspace. Developers of these sites claim that their target audience is adults of legal drinking age. Many alcohol companies card visitors by requiring them to provide their date of birth before entering the site. Most sites also include a disclaimer on the opening screen indicating that visitors must be of legal drinking age.
Many children, however, easily bypass these simple precautions, because, how many teenagers can come up with a fake birthday to get access to these sites? Once inside, it is clear that these companies are creating an environment full of activities that can and do appeal to children and teens. As the following examples illustrate, at the Cuervo site, (www.cuervo.com), visitors are encouraged to play games, download screen savers, and enter drawings to win a free tee-shirt. At the Budweiser site, (www.budweiser.com), visitors find and even a wider selection of colorful screen savers, along with free Web-based e-mail, electronic postcards, and more contests, including contests for free football tickets. Both of these sites, and many more like them, portray drinking as fun, glamorous, and cool. An other site called, Happy Drunks, (www.happydrunks.com), advertises itself as the premier site for drinking and entertainment.
In a twisted way, the traditional counter that clicks off visitors to the Web site, Happy Drunks announces, The Happy Drunks crew has ordered XXX pitchers of beer since April 3, 1999. Because of the legal and political pressures, tobacco companies do not have Web-based marketing, but there is no shortage of sites devoted to the use, sale and even glorification of smoking cigarettes and cigars. At Smoke Signal, (www.smokesigs.com), visitors are invited to explore the fetish of smoking. The site features pictures of women smoking cigarettes and a banner for phone sex and Web chats with smoking women. The Smoking Section, (http://smokingsection.com), is the self-proclaimed home of smokers with attitude. The site features cool ways to smoke and offers lessons in such smoking tricks as French inhaling and blowing smoke rings. There is even a portion of this site devoted to smoker’s rights. Although no one seems to know exactly the impact of online marketing and promotion on underage alcohol and tobacco consumption, there is enough evidence to suggest that there is a relationship between online advertising and alcohol and tobacco consumption by minors.
Public health experts point to the growing body of research on the relationship between online and offline advertising and promotion and young people’s experimentation with alcohol and tobacco. The impact of advertising on youth has been well documented. Victor Strasburger said, a variety of studies have explored the impact of advertising on children and adolescents. Nearly all have shown advertising to be extremely effective in increasing youngsters’ awareness of and the emotional responses to products, their recognition of certain brands, and their desire to use these advertised products. While this trend is alarming, it becomes even more so when the relationships are created between children and spokespersons for alcohol and tobacco products.
A number of studies have examined the influence of alcohol and tobacco advertising and marketing practices, many focusing on the industries’ successful efforts to target youth. The most significant finding have shown that advertising contributes to youths’ attitudes, values, and preferences, and is influential in their decisions about alcohol and tobacco use. In 1991, The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published several studies that demonstrated the effects of tobacco advertising campaigns of young people, including research on RJR Nabisco’s Joe Camel cartoon advertising. One study found that the proportion of smokers under 18 who chose Camel rose from 0.5% to 32.8% after the ad were introduced. Much of this evidence contributed to the Federal Trade Commission’s decision to prevent the further use of Joe Camel in RJR Nabiscos’ advertising campaigns.
Studies of alcohol advertising have generated similar findings. Strasburger studied 468 randomly selected fifth and sixth graders and found that 88% of them could identify Spuds Mackenzie with Bud Light beer. Their ability to name brands of beers and match slogans or theme characters with the brands was significantly related to their exposure and attention to beer ads. It seems clear, that the presence of alcohol and tobacco marketing in a powerful interactive media environment like the Web those pose a significant public health risk, especially to young people. Major alcohol beverage companies have a growing commercial presence on the Web, with more than 35 brands represented, and numerous other sites and homepages are dedicated to smoking. While regulatory constraints and fear of political backlash have kept most of the big tobacco companies from launching advertising Web sites, recent developments suggest that they are ready to make their presence online.
It is clear that, 1. Congress should conduct hearings on the online marketing of alcohol and tobacco to the nation’s children. 2. The Federal Trade Commission should use its authority over unfair and deceptive advertising on the Web. 3. The Food and Drug Administration should carefully monitor online alcohol and tobacco promotions and develop any additional safeguards needed to protect youth that are already at risk.
We are quickly moving into a digital age that will profoundly affect how children and youth grow and learn, what they value, and, ultimately, who they become. Helping our children and teens navigate in this digital culture presents both a challenge and an opportunity. – Kathryn Montgomery Reference Center for Media Education (1997). Alcohol and Tobacco, A New Threats to Youth, Washington D.C. Domina,C., Alcohol and Tobacco, Case Study, p512-526 Pierce, (1999).
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