Special Report

NASCAR Nannies

Drinking, driving, and advertising are not supposed to mix.

By 1.4.05

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NASCAR racing has long sported a blue-collar reputation. But the sport's decision to accept advertising for liquor has energized a gaggle of would-be national nannies.

Beer marketing is everywhere: on TV, in magazines, and at sports events, including NASCAR. Yet few complaints are heard.

Spirits, however, are different. Try to market them like any other legal product and get attacked, sued, and regulated.

In a world in which every tort attorney continues to look for the next liability gravy train, alcohol is an obvious target.

A few years ago a Florida group unsuccessfully sought $1 billion in restitution, unspecified punitive damages, and severe limits on advertising and marketing from the alcohol industry. The American Medical Association hosted an International Alcohol Policy Conference at which participants charged alcohol makers with using "frogs, lizards, dogs and cartoon-like characters that appeal to youth to promote alcoholic beverages." The federally subsidized Marin Institute pushed to stop Anheuser-Busch from including cartoons in its beer ads.

These efforts never went far, but more recently attorneys targeted a number of beer and spirits makers. The plaintiffs filed class action suits charging alcohol producers with "deliberately and recklessly" targeting underage consumers through advertising, particularly the use of cartoon characters, reliance on video game and Spring Break themes, creation of accessible websites, and use of sexual imagery.

There have been individual suits as well. The family of one 19-year-old male blamed Coors because he drank, drove drunk, and broke the speed limit. The lawsuit, later dismissed, claimed that the accident was Coors' fault because the firm sponsored sporting events and was "glorifying a culture of youth, sex, and glamour."

These sort of charges are all nonsense, of course. But advertising seems to be a favorite villain.

When Seagrams abandoned its voluntary ban on broadcast ads several years ago the usual suspects acted as if cocaine merchants had taken over the airwaves. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) launched investigations, Congressmen introduced legislation, commentators fulminated, and activists raged.

Then-FCC Chairman Reed Hundt attacked makers of distilled spirits for planning to advertise on TV, even as the beer industry was spending more than $600 million annually on television ads. No one, and certainly not Hundt, complained about the latter.

The political furor eventually died down, but not before Congress instructed the FTC to review the effectiveness of industry self-regulation in preventing alcohol advertising and marketing directed to those below age 21. (The Commission's report sharply rebuffed industry critics.)

Cable television has since run millions of dollars worth of sprits ads. NBC began allowing ads two years ago but abandoned the practice several months later, citing the threat by some congressmen to hold hearings.

A few years ago in Dallas the local Starplex amphitheater sold naming rights to United Distillers & Vintners (UDV), a unit of Britain's Diageo. After Coke ended its sponsorship in 1998, the House of Blues and SFX Entertainment agreed to call the Starplex the Smirnoff Music Centre. Local activists raged about the inappropriate "message" and the fact that children might see the sign. They threatened public protests.

Now the hysterics are at it again. Earlier this year Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.) introduced a resolution calling on the National Collegiate Athletic Association to stop accepting radio and TV ads for alcohol during its athletic events.

MORE RECENTLY THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION for Stock Car Auto Racing announced it would allow producers of spirits to sponsor NASCAR teams. Notably, NASCAR is the second-most watched sport on TV. Diageo was first out of the block, with a deal to feature the Crown Royal brand with Roush Racing. Jack Daniel's and others are expected to follow suit.

The move is hardly radical. After all, liquor producers already sponsor teams in the Indy Racing League and the International Race of Champions. Moreover, NASCAR allows spirits advertising at racetracks, as well as team sponsorship by malt beverages (Diageo advertises Smirnoff ICE in this way).

Finally, NASCAR has accepted beer advertising for a quarter century. Budweiser sponsors Dale Earnhardt, Jr., while Busch is involved in a secondary racing series.

The series has been attempting to upgrade its image and expand its reach -- it shifted its championship from R.J. Reynolds to Nextel and signed a $2.8 billion television contract with Fox and NBC starting in 2001. But NASCAR always has had a populist edge compared to other major sports, which still ban sponsorship of teams by spirits producers. The series actually grew out of the practice of moonshiners outrunning "revenuers" during Prohibition from 1919 to 1933. Drivers eventually turned their souped up cars to stock car races.

That was then, however, and this is now. Today's self-anointed defenders of public virtue think the races should serve as a civic role model.

For instance, the American Medical Association "is extremely troubled" by NASCAR's announcement, says AMA president-elect J. Edward Hill: The series "should use its new-found marketing and cultural influence to be a positive role model, not to endanger the lives and health of youth through the glamorization of liquor." The organization cited a poll indicating that 69 percent of people thought sports teams and leagues should reduce alcohol advertising.

The paternalists at the so-called Center for Science in the Public Interest -- a group worried that someone somewhere might actually enjoy eating or drinking -- joined the anti-alcohol parade. George Hacker, director of The Center's Alcohol Policies Project, warned: "You'll have liquor billboards rolling around the track hundreds of times, constantly in view of the cameras." Even the sports comic strip Tank McNamara blasted the NASCAR decision.

Yet these complaints could be made against all alcohol ads, especially beer ads that seemingly tie consumption to virility and youth. Auto advertising also does much the same thing. As do spots for clothes (including ones where models don't wear anything, including the clothes supposedly being advertised).

If people don't like alcohol ads, they can ignore them. Indeed, if people didn't respond to them companies wouldn't waste money on them.

Of course, critics point to kids: "Our children need less exposure to alcohol, not more," complained Dr. Hill. Similarly, said Hacker, the NASCAR deal provides "non-stop rolling, roaring billboards that will be seen by millions of young and impressionable people -- including underage persons." AP sports columnist Steve Wilstein charged: "there are plenty of NASCAR fans under 21 watching those alcohol ads going around the track and making the obvious connection with life in the fast lane."

NASCAR obviously isn't for everyone, and those who follow it aren't kids. The average NASCAR fan is 38-years-old.

According to NASCAR 95 percent of race attendees are over 21; 88 percent of those who watch races on TV are over 21.

EVEN MORE BIZARRELY, CRITICS link NASCAR ads to drunk driving. The AMA charged that "NASCAR's unwise decision only makes matters worse. NASCAR is only helping liquor companies enhance their image -- fast, risky driving in a cool car goes hand in hand with their product."

Hacker echoed the claim: "rather than disassociating drinking and driving, it reinforces the relationship between liquor and cars." Wilstein went even further, noting that "More than 17,000 people die and a half-million are injured every year because of drunken driving."

What does this have to do with NASCAR? Argues Wilstein, there "is the real wreckage caused by drunken drivers in the 18- to-34 male demographic that NASCAR so assiduously and successfully cultivates."

Spirits producers, like beer makers, are advertising a product, not a practice: none of them want or gain from drunk driving. Nor is the new deal anything goes.

The agreement specifies that 20 percent of race-themed ads must contain "responsible drinking" messages. NASCAR President Mike Helton said, "Any spirits company involved in NASCAR will have marketing campaigns strongly grounded in responsibility and will follow advertising and marketing guidelines set by NASCAR that are consistent with the Distilled Spirits Council's advertising code."

Moreover, the decision doesn't require teams to accept alcohol advertising. For instance, driver Morgan Shepherd, a reformed alcoholic, said that he doesn't "look down on those who do have those type sponsorships," but views alcohol ads as conflicting with his attempt to promote Christianity.

Indeed, NASCAR's willingness to accept alcohol ads has received some surprising support. John Moulden, president of the National Commission Against Drunk Driving, observed "They appear to be trying to do it right." He added: "We'd like to see that same type of responsibility by all sports and advertisers." Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has taken no public position on the issue, some officials privately echo Moulden's view.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving seems less enthused, but even MADD President Wendy Hamilton acknowledges that "alcohol is alcohol, and beer and distilled spirits should not be treated differently when it comes to advertising practices." Someone determined to act irresponsibly is as likely to do so with beer as liquor. If there's an issue to be debated, it is advertising for alcohol, not advertising for spirits.

SHOULD ALCOHOL ADS BE banned? They are meant to sell product, of course. But drinking alcohol is not the same as drinking irresponsibly. If critics think advertising leads to the latter they should produce some evidence.

In fact, most alcohol consumed around the world isn't advertised. Studies of changes in advertising in America and overseas have found no measurable impact on total consumption. When kids explain why they drink, they cite their parents and peers, not ads.

More than a decade ago the FTC admitted that there was "no reliable basis to conclude that alcohol advertising significantly affects consumption, let alone abuse" and that "absent such evidence, there is no basis for concluding that rules banning or otherwise limiting alcohol advertising would offer significant protection to the public." Advertising mostly affects brand preference, encouraging those already inclined to drink to drink a particular brand.

The industry also regulates itself. Companies want to make money to be sure, but encouraging their best customers to die in car wrecks would be bad for business. Indeed, the Beer Institute, Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, and Wine Institute all have voluntary advertising codes covering ad content and placement.

The FTC reports: "for the most part, members of the industry comply with the current standards." Adds the Commission, "many individual companies follow their own internal standards that exceed code requirements."

Does the world still suffer from alcoholics and drunk drivers and other alcohol abusers? Sure.

Almost any good thing in life can be abused. So it is with alcohol.

But the answer is to punish those who act irresponsibly, not the product. We must not allow well-intended busybodies to treat the rest of us like children. A free society requires no less.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).