Osborne Targets Beer Ads

Posted November 14, 2003 at 5:40pm

If Rep. Tom Osborne (R-Neb.) has his way, game time will no longer be synonymous with “Miller time.”

The former University of Nebraska football coach has teamed up with the Center for Science in the Public Interest — the same folks who spoiled movie popcorn and deli tuna for the masses — to coax university presidents into voluntarily banning all alcohol advertising from college sporting events.

The duo want presidents and chancellors to sign a pledge promising to drop alcohol sponsors from local game broadcasts and to put pressure on their athletic conferences and the National Collegiate Athletic Association to follow suit with national telecasts.

“It is also disturbing to see the use of alcohol glamorized by many advertisements, particularly those shown at athletic events,” Osborne said last week at a press event kicking off the center’s campaign for alcohol-free sports TV. “Evidence indicates that these commercials often specifically target a youthful audience that watches athletic events.”

Osborne noted that beer producers spent $27 million advertising on the 2002 NCAA mens’ basketball tournament. He added that the basketball tourney had “as many alcohol ads as the Super Bowl, World Series, college bowl games, and National Football League’s ‘Monday Night Football’ combined.”

Jeff Becker, president of The Beer Institute, immediately fired back that the announcement “is another effort to drive an agenda based on misrepresentations which the facts simply do not support.”

Becker added, “The fact is that the vast majority of those persons that watch and attend college sports, as well as the majority of students in college, are of legal drinking age — 21 or older.”

Osborne is not prepared to introduce legislation to force compliance, according to spokeswoman Erin Hegge, but he hopes college sports officials take heed on their own.

“He just wants the commercials to go, but he doesn’t like legislation that [interferes] with intercollegiate athletics,” Hegge said.

But universities wishing to drop the beer sponsors will find it difficult to do so because of contractual obligations, according to a University of Nebraska spokeswoman.

“We do not accept any direct marketing money from [alcohol companies],” Chris Anderson, the spokeswoman, said.

The Big 12 powerhouse does not allow alcohol to be sold at its events, does not accept beer companies’ ads in its team programs and does not allow them to buy spots on local shows, such as a talk show featuring coaches.

That was something Osborne was adamant about during his 36-year tenure as a coach, she said. However, when the Cornhusker football team takes on a competitor on national television, the university does not insist on the ban because those contracts are negotiated by the entire Big 12 conference or by the NCAA, she said.

“Those contracts are made independently of the university,” Anderson said.

And that is exactly what CSPI, the consumer group, ultimately wants to affect.

“College officials say they want to deter underage and binge drinking [and] they say they want to stop the riots that disrupt their campus communities and blot their schools’ reputations,” George Hacker, the center’s alcohol policies director, said. “But too often, they’re complicit with beer marketers in pitching beer to their students and other young fans.”

Last year, alcohol makers spent about $58 million on college sports programming, according to the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth. And that’s not the only place they spend big bucks.

The Beer Institute has spent $420,000 lobbying Congress so far this year. While the group works on unrelated issues, such as excise tax matters, it also lobbies on legislation “including alcohol beverage advertising,” according to its lobbying disclosure form.

Last year the beer group spent $860,000 on lobbying. In addition, individual beer companies collectively spend millions on their own lobbying efforts.

For instance, Anheuser Busch Cos. has spent $140,000 so far this year on advertising and alcohol abuse programs lobbying, according to disclosure forms. On all issues, the maker of Budweiser and Bud Lite has forked over $623,000 so far.

Miller Brewing Co. has spent $680,000 so far this year on a range of issues, including advertising regulations. In 2002, the Milwaukee-based company shelled out $1.16 million in lobbying fees.

Neither Congress nor the Federal Communications Commission has ever forbidden alcohol companies from advertising on television. But up until a few years ago, distillers and spirit makers voluntarily stayed off the airwaves, while brewers never did.

The beer industry also donates generously to federal candidates, doling out more than $2 million so far this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The top recipient far and away is President Bush, who has raked in $394,740 thus far.

Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), a Democratic presidential candidate, is second with $89,500 — thanks to the fact that Anheuser-Busch is based in St. Louis.

For his part, Osborne said it just doesn’t make sense for alcohol companies, which profess to want to curb underage drinking, to advertise during college games.

“Most of the young people who participate in NCAA athletics are under the legal drinking age and since intercollegiate athletes are supposed to represent positive values, the alcohol commercials seem particularly inappropriate,” he said.