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BODY POLITIC : Billboard Brouhaha

March 13, 1994|Steve Salerno

The billboard high above San Diego's busy Sports Arena Boulevard shows a trio of plaintive, ethnically diverse women staring straight into the camera. Alongside is the exhortation: "Quit using our cans to sell yours."

The catchy mantra, now visible in 20 locations across the county, was conceived by a coalition of West Coast public-interest groups dubbing itself Consumers to Stop Sexist Alcohol Advertising. CSSAA--run as three independent programs in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego--is fed up with the portrayal of women in alcohol ads generally and beer commercials in particular. "We need to get away from this idea that if you drink, you'll have these gorgeous females at your disposal, that the woman goes along with the booze," says Betty White of San Diego's Center for Women's Studies and Services.

White maintains that men 18 to 25 are the greatest consumers of beer and the most frequent perpetrators of sex crimes, distinctions she feels are not entirely coincidental. Mix the usual advertising imagery with the natural restiveness of young men, add the alcohol, and you've brewed a precarious cocktail indeed, White argues: "That's why we're calling our ad campaign 'Dangerous Promises.' "

But the San Diego group didn't want to be too heavy-handed lest its efforts meet the same fate as those of the sister programs in San Francisco and Los Angeles, whose plans fizzled when Gannett, the major outdoor-advertising firm, blanched at their suggested billboard copy. The Los Angeles group favored the same line used in San Diego but ran into trouble when it insisted on prefacing its ads with the salutation, "Hey, Bud," a swipe at the brewery that CSSAA considers to be the worst offender. San Francisco, meanwhile, threw subtlety completely to the wind with its "Bloodweiser . . . King of Tears."

None of which impresses Francine Katz, director of consumer awareness for Anheuser Busch. "Beer doesn't cause domestic violence," declares Katz. "As a woman, I'm offended and dismayed that they would trivialize the issue of domestic violence by taking the responsibility for the abuse away from the abuser and putting it on the product."

Katz sees nothing objectionable about Budweiser advertising, saying Bud was targeted "simply because we're the biggest." Furthermore, she says, "If they're going to be honest, they know that alcohol doesn't cause abuse."

Lori Leiber, a volunteer with the San Francisco program, says her group is now considering the softer San Diego version, but refuses to apologize for the original sledgehammer slogan. The goal, she says, "is to get the attention of the alcohol producers and ask them to adopt advertising standards regarding alcohol and violence in the same way they address other issues like drinking and driving."

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