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Alcohol marketing scrutinized

Standard procedure for alcohol ads and sales won't cut it online, says a bill in the California Senate.

When cocky teenagers pick up a six-pack at the corner market, it's easy for the clerk to quietly smile and point to a sign: "If you're lucky enough to look under age 35, expect to show some ID."

Carding kids online is a bit trickier.

Liquor and beer industry associations say applying their ethical and legal standards for advertising on radio and television, especially those regarding children, covers their obligation to the Net. Still, some legislators and children's advocacy groups are calling for a stop to the practices of selling alcohol online and "marketing" through alcohol distillers' Web sites.

The latest move comes from California state Sen. Steve Peace (D-El Cajon). He introduced a bill yesterday to amend existing laws to require those selling alcoholic beverages online to see proof of age and identity when the products are delivered. The bill also makes it illegal for solicitors to misrepresent their identity or mission for the purpose of making a sale on the Net.

"These laws include limitations on the availability to minors of liquor, tobacco, and harmful matter, limitations on the general availability of gambling, and procedures governing the advertising, sale, and terms and conditions of purchases," the bill states. "Harmful matter," is described as "patently offensive, sexual conduct."

Bustling online sales have led independent liquor stores to set up Web operations that often run like a mail-order catalog--taking orders and credit card payments and shipping bottles to nearly every state. Some vendors ask for a driver's license number and expiration date to verify age; others ask for nothing at all, research revealed.

For example, a Web site run by a longtime New York wine and liquor shop simply accepts emails with order and payment information. The manager said the store has no policy for verifying age but has yet to run into trouble: "We can always ask how old they are or have the person mail or fax age verification. If we have any doubts, we just won't sell."

Some don't think that's good enough. "The practice of selling alcohol products online without an effective age verification system is outrageous and needs to be regulated immediately," Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Center for Media Education said today.

The Center is equally concerned with the slew of beer and liquor companies who have put up colorful marketing sites on the Web. It will present a report to the Federal Trade Commission in the spring about online marketing to kids, specifically of tobacco and alcohol.

The center says kids can't differentiate ads from content on alcohol sites. The theory echoes the Communications Decency Act, which prohibited making available indecent material to minors over the Net--though the Center is opposed the CDA.

"There is no question that the online marketing of alcohol and tobacco products promotes the consumption of addictive and harmful products to young people," Chester said. "The Internet is much more powerful than television because it's interactive. This is a good example of where the Internet needs to be regulated both federally and internationally."

Budweiser, Red Hook, and Zima are a few of the alcohol sites that have games, articles, and other interactive areas prefaced by a warning that only those over 21 should surf their pages. There is blocking software available to parents that can filter out sites related to drugs and alcohol. Most Internet service providers offer it for free.

The FTC hasn't announced any lawsuits against online alcohol marketers for illegal practices. Although the Federal Communications Commission is opposed to television ads for liquor--not beer or wine--the FCC has no jurisdiction or opinion about content in the Net. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearmscould not be reached for comment.

Alcohol and advertising industry groups seem unshaken by accusations that online marketing is dangerous for children. Many associations say that their members will follow the same guidelines on the Net that they do when they put up billboards, produce television commercials, or take out magazine ads.

"Our 'code of good practice' applies to Internet advertising," said Lisa Hawkins of the Distilled Spirit Council, which represents 90 percent of the liquor companies in the country.

Although the DSC has lifted its television ad ban on members, Hawkins says the council still stresses responsible marketing and advertising geared toward adults, not children.

"Distilled spirits should not be advertised or marketed in any manner directed or primarily intended to appeal to persons below the legal purchase age." Furthermore, the code states, "marketing material should not depict a child, portray objects, images, or cartoon figures that are popular predominately with children."

Amidst the controversy, Pete's Wicked Ale, a Bay Area brewing company, has posted only a corporate site with financial information to date. However, the company is considering a more in-depth site in the future for beer enthusiasts.

"We will only generate content toward legal-age drinkers. With no cartoons or anything like that, " Kristin Seuell, director of communications said. "We'll keep the same standards we've had in our print or radio ads."