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Controversy Brews Over 'Alcopops'

Alcohol: The fruity, soda-like drinks carry colorful, cartoonish labels. Critics say the cocktails are targeted at teens, a charge the industry denies.

March 03, 1997|JANET KINOSIAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Talk about a brewhaha.

That's what seems to be shaping up over "alcopops"--alcoholic fruit soda pops that have become a phenomenal success in Britain and Australia and may or may not be heading to a market near you.

These lemonade-flavored cocktails contain about 4.5% alcohol, roughly the same punch as beer, but masked sweetly so they can be chugged like soda. Bass PLC posted sales of $300 million last year in Britain, Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore with its Hooper's Hooch; the company then test-marketed the sweet, malt-based brew in San Diego and Miami last spring.

What particularly irks critics: the packaging and labeling of these "malternatives," which feature slick cartoons and bold, bright colors. Names like Smirnoff Vodka's Electric Lemonade, Minnesota Brewing Co.'s Yellow Belly, Mrs. Pucker's, Thickhead, Woody's Alcoholic Fruit Drink, Lemon Bolt and Lemonheads "appeal not to 40-year-olds, but guess who?" asks Terrence Whillhite, executive director of the private California Council on Alcohol Problems, based in Sacramento. "It's ludicrous for alcohol companies to say they're not interested in marketing these products to youth--even Snapple doesn't use cartoons."

Possibly fearing this backlash, the industry giants have stayed on the sidelines, at least for now. Miller Brewing Co., which tested its Wiley's Lemon Twist last year in Birmingham, Ala., Jacksonville, Fla., and Lexington, Ky., says it has no further plans to edge into the potentially lucrative alcopop market. Ditto for Anheuser-Busch, though it reportedly had been considering a product called Yellow Jack.

But while company giants hang back, a slew of 90-odd smaller brewery brands have been sold internationally or are finding their way to Midwestern supermarkets, convenience and liquor store shelves--a typical first-introduction market for the U.S., says Makani Temba, co-director of the Praxis Project in Oakland, a public health advocacy group. "The biggest, deepest anti-alcohol marketing work is done there. Then the companies will roll out cautiously," she predicts.

Already, legislation has been introduced in California to restrict the use of cartoon characters on alcoholic beverages; it failed last year but will be reintroduced. Assemblywoman Dede Alpert (D-Coronado), a co-sponsor of the bill, calls the marketing of alcopops "offensive and potentially dangerous."

The first alcopop was created in 1993 by an Australian brewer, Duncan MacGillivray, who was looking for a use for an oversupply of lemons. It was vaguely similar to shandy, a beer and lemonade refreshment long popular in British and Irish pubs, and soon captured 4% of the beer market.

Public health groups there blasted the industry, charging that the sweet brews appeal to youngsters already accustomed to fruit drinks, and that they are being used as a clever introductory-level product. The industry denies this, saying it is only interested in responsible adult sales.

Analysts see signs of the same duel being set up in this country. "People will not stand for their children to be targets, and if this is the case here, I'd say, rightly so," says D. Kirk Davidson, professor of business at Mount St. Mary's College in Maryland and author of "Selling Sin: The Marketing of Socially Unacceptable Products" (Quorum Books, 1996).

Mark Robinson, president of the Los Angeles chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, charges that the cartoonish labels and low alcohol content represent a blatant strategy to snare teens. "The alcohol companies will continue to spend billions of dollars selling alcohol to youth," he says. "We only wish we had billions to combat that strategy."

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Bosh, replies one beer maker. "There is no evidence to suggest there was an increase in underage drinking because of [alcopops]," says Martin Fagan, general manager for the Americas at Bass Beers Worldwide, which along with Two Dogs, the MacGillivray Australian brand, holds the top slot in the world market.

The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which oversees the enforcement of underage drinking laws in California, agrees for now, says spokesman Carl Dewing. He adds that the office is keeping an eye on the controversy.

TGI Friday's restaurants, whose logo appears on soda drinks with a much higher alcohol content (Lemon Drops, 20%; Butter Balls, 15%; and Oatmeal Cookies, 15%)--and whose packaging has been singled out by critics for targeting teens--replies in an official release: "TGI Friday's does not, and would never condone the sale of alcoholic beverages to minors." Heublein Inc., the distributor, says product labels are being changed and will be in stores by mid-March.

There's a somewhat mysterious undercurrent to the whole brewing controversy. Groups like the Beer Institute, the California Beer and Wine Wholesalers Assn. and the California Beverage Merchants are staying mum, referring all questions to the manufacturers.

"I don't think the segment has blossomed yet," says Gary Hemphill, vice president of the Beverage Marketing Assn. in Washington, D.C., "and people are standing out of arrow's reach to see what the public demand in the U.S. will be before they jump in."

Plenty of kids, on the other hand, know about the drinks. From Madison to Manchester, 13- and 14-year-olds have been heard chanting, "Hooch! Hooch! Hooch!" and reciting its slogan, "One taste and you're Hooched."

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