Booze ads as free speech


THE PARTY'S over, Spuds."

This is the message beer and wine companies may soon be hearing from government officials charged with advertising regulation. Efforts are currently under way at both the national and local levels to restrict some or all forms of alcohol advertising. In Washington State, for example, a Seattle pediatrician is leading a movement to force beer companies to advertise without references to "sex, feats of daring and the use of sports legends." If these restrictions are approved today by the Washington State Liquor Control Board, its members will be empowered to reject ads which allegedly use these tactics.

Those who favor such bans cite public health and safety concerns, while opponents call the proposed curbs a violation of free speech. Central to the beer ad battle are charges that the alcoholic beverage companies target teens and young adults in their commercials. A survey by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that kids could name more brands of alcohol than they could name U.S. presidents. Beer companies, which have long sponsored sporting events and sought celebrity endorsements, are now linking up with youthful icons. Beach party themes and similar motifs are common in both print and TV.

Last Halloween, Antonia C. Novello, the U.S. surgeon generalexpressed outrage at the beer industry for pitching its "spirits" with ads using haunted house tie-ins. But Novello's efforts aren't new. Two years ago, a workshop sponsored by her predecessor, C. Everett Koop, proposed such measures as inserting health warnings in alcohol ads, ending celebrity endorsements, banning sponsorships of sporting events by alcohol marketers, cutting alcohol ads and promotions on college campuses and allowing equal time for messages countering the alcohol merchants.

Testifying before Congress last year before leaving his post, Koop claimed that children see 100,000 beer commercials by the time they turn 18. Citing the National Commission on Drunk Driving, he said that such ads visually associate drinking with "sex, patriotism, active life styles and health."

While Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee and Rep. Joseph Kennedy of Massachusetts pushed for an alcohol ad ban law known as the Sensible Advertising and Family Education Act (SAFE), opponents lobbied to protect their commercial speech rights -- their "right" to truthfully advertise legal products.

But is there such a "right"? In 1986, the Supreme Court began chipping away at strong commercial speech protection by upholding a ban on the advertising of legal gambling casinos in Puerto Rico. And the court is sending a clear signal that local laws banning some advertising might be upheld. As a result, efforts to restrict alcohol ads apparently are gaining momentum on local levels. But the alcohol industry is not without some heavyweight supporters. NBC News president Michael Gartner recently told a group of journalists that "if we censor commercials . . . then pretty soon there will be moves to censor noncommercial speech. For after all, the line is thin and movable between these two kinds of speech."

Perhaps the most innovative argument against ad bans is the economic impact study. An article in the Wall Street Journal cited the Leadership Council on Advertising Issues, which notes that a tobacco ad ban would kill 165 magazines and force newspapers to lay off 7,900. A ban on beer and wine ads would cause the demise of 84 magazines and result in the loss of 4,232 television jobs, while threatening "an enormous chunk of network sports programming."

Whether you argue for free speech on constitutional grounds or make a more pragmatic economic appeal, the bottom line is that bans on truthful advertising of legal products go against the American values of individual freedom of choice and the right to a free marketplace of ideas. As an ex-smoker, a very moderate drinker and a concerned parent, I naturally back the promotion of health and the reduced consumption of tobacco and alcohol. But as an educator in media studies, I unequivocally support the right of the manufacturers and distributors of these products to advertise.

We're all against teen drinking and drunk driving, but we must not cave in to forces that would reach these worthy goals by giving national or local government regulators carte blanche to censor advertising. Education is the more sensible, more constitutional, and thus -- to use current Supreme Court logic -- the more "reasonable" means to meet the government's ends.

Mark Braun is an assistant professor in speech and ... communication studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.

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