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Group Says Net Ads Tout Booze, Tobacco to Kids

March 07, 1997|DENISE GELLENE and D'JAMILA SALEM-FITZGERALD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Alcohol and tobacco advertisers are using graphics and music with strong kid appeal to tout their products on the Internet, an advocacy group asserted Thursday.

The Center for Media Education said that government action is needed to protect children from tempting cyber pitches, some of which may be illegal.

But representatives of alcohol and tobacco companies insisted that they are not using interactive pitches to target kids and teenagers.

"It is absolutely not true," said Beer Institute spokesman Jeff Becker. "We go the extra mile to make absolutely sure the advertising we do is for an audience that can legally buy our products."

The Center for Media Education said about two dozen alcohol brands use cartoon characters, pop music or electronic games in their digital promotions--all features that appeal to children. And dozens more Internet sites feature retailers hawking alcohol and tobacco products, the group said. Few of the digital "stores" check the buyer's age.

No cigarette manufacturer aims digital tobacco ads at American consumers. But the group found plugs for Lucky Strike in Germany that were written partly in English and could be accessed by clever Internet navigators in the United States. It also said that the maker of Lucky Strike, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., has been advertising an Internet site in San Francisco that features hip local hangouts and asks questions about cigarette use.

A spokesman for Brown & Williamson said it is "promoting awareness of events, not cigarettes."

The group asserted that the tobacco pitches violate the Cigarette Act of 1971, which removed cigarette ads from radio and television. But government sources said privately that it is not clear whether the Cigarette Act, written before the digital age, extends to tobacco advertising on the Internet.

In making its critique, the Center for Media Education is extending scrutiny of alcohol and tobacco advertising to a new medium. The industries have long been under assault for using tactics, such as TV commercials featuring Budweiser frogs and billboards showing Joe Camel, which some believe entice children and teens. Most recently, the distilled spirits industry has been criticized for ending a self-imposed, decades-old ban on television and radio advertising.

The Center for Media Education said Internet pitches are worrisome because the medium is becoming popular with kids. It said that 5 million children between the ages of 2 and 17 use the Internet at home or in school, and that 9.1 million college students are regular users of the digital communications network.

The number of children exposed to the Internet is bound to increase, given President Clinton's drive to wire every school, the group said.

"This new medium, with its vivid graphics and engaging interactivity, is quickly becoming a powerful presence in the lives of children and youth," said Center for Media Education President Kathryn Montgomery. "That promoters of alcohol and tobacco have seized upon it so quickly is a troubling sign."

The group called on various government agencies to review its findings. Representatives of the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission said that they would do so.

"The FTC is quite concerned about allegations of tobacco and alcohol advertising, no matter where they are that might be directed to underage youth," a spokeswoman said. Separately, the commission is reviewing cases where two alcohol companies aired TV commercials during shows watched mainly by kids.

A spokesman for the Justice Department, which enforces the Cigarette Act of 1971, had no immediate comment.

The Center for Media Education pointed to examples of ads that it believes appeal to children. A promotion for Jose Cuervo features a game called "Roadhog Adventure," a wild ride with a cyber rodent through a desert strewn with tequila bottles.

Anheuser-Busch offers colorful bios of its controversial croaking frogs, noting one is a former fraternity president who likes "to hang out on a beach with a hot babe and a cool Bud."

Jos. E. Seagram & Sons invites visitors to its interactive promotion for Captain Morgan Spiced Rum to dig for buried treasure and send virtual postcards complete with rum images to friends.

Representatives for the three brands said they are not targeting underage drinkers.

"Information about beer does not cause underage drinking," said Francine Katz, vice president of consumer awareness and education at Anheuser Busch. "Most kids can open up a refrigerator and see a can of Budweiser." She added: "There is nothing on our Web site that a family would not see when they visit our brewery."

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