Commentary

NASCAR Nannies

NASCAR racing has long sported a blue-collar reputation. But the organization’s decision to accept liquor advertising has energized the usual national nannies.

Beer marketing is everywhere. Yet few complaints are heard.

Try to sell spirits like any other legal product, however, and expect to be attacked.

When Seagrams abandoned its voluntary ban on broadcast ads several years ago one would have thought that cocaine merchants had seized the airwaves. Federal commissions launched investigations, Congressmen introduced legislation, commentators fulminated, and activists raged.

The political furor eventually died down and cable television has since run millions of dollars worth of ads for spirits.

NBC began allowing liquor ads two years ago but abandoned the practice after some congressmen threatened to hold hearings.

Now the hysterics are at it again.

The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing recently announced it would allow spirits producers to sponsor NASCAR teams. Diageo was first out of the block, with a deal to back Roush Racing with the Crown Royal brand.

NASCAR’s move shouldn’t surprise. Liquor producers already sponsor teams in the Indy Racing League and the International Race of Champions. NASCAR allows spirits advertising at racetracks, as well as team sponsorship by malt beverages (Diageo advertises Smirnoff ICE in this way). Moreover, NASCAR has accepted beer advertising for a quarter century.

In fact, the series grew out of the practice of moonshiners outrunning “revenuers” during Prohibition. Yet today’s self-anointed defenders of public virtue think the races should serve as a civic role model.

For instance, says American Medical Association president-elect J. Edward Hill: The series “should use its new-found marketing and cultural influence to be a positive role model, not to endanger the lives and health of youth through the glamorization of liquor.”

George Hacker of the so-called Center for Science in the Public Interest - a paternalistic group long worried that someone somewhere might actually enjoy eating or drinking - warned: “You’ll have liquor billboards rolling around the track hundreds of times, constantly in view of the cameras.”

Yet these complaints could be made against all alcohol ads.

So the critics point to kids. AP sports columnist Steve Wilstein charged: “there are plenty of NASCAR fans under 21 watching those alcohol ads going around the track and making the obvious connection with life in the fast lane.”

Actually, the average NASCAR fan is 38-years-old. An estimated 95 percent and 88 percent of race attendees and TV viewers, respectively, are over 21.

Some critics bizarrely link NASCAR ads to drunk driving. Charged Hacker: “rather than disassociating drinking and driving, it reinforces the relationship between liquor and cars.”

Wilstein noted that “More than 17,000 people die and a half-million are injured every year because of drunken driving.”

What does this have to do with NASCAR? Spirits producers, like beer makers, are advertising a product, not a practice: none of them gain from drunk driving.

In fact, the NASCAR agreement specifies that 20 percent of race-themed ads must contain “responsible drinking” messages. John Moulden, president of the National Commission Against Drunk Driving, observed “They appear to be trying to do it right.”

He added: “We’d like to see that same type of responsibility by all sports and advertisers.” Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has taken no position on the issue, some officials privately echo Moulden’s view.

Is the problem alcohol ads in general? They are meant to sell product, of course. But drinking alcohol is not the same as drinking irresponsibly.

Most alcohol consumed around the world isn’t advertised. Studies of changes in advertising in America and overseas have found no measurable impact on total consumption. When kids explain why they drink, they cite their parents and peers, not ads.

More than a decade ago the Federal Trade Commission admitted that there was “no reliable basis to conclude that alcohol advertising significantly affects consumption, let alone abuse.”

Advertising mostly changes brand preference.

The industry also regulates itself. Companies want to make money to be sure, but encouraging their best customers to die in car wrecks would be bad for business. Indeed, all of the industry associations have voluntary advertising codes covering ad content and placement.

The FTC reports: “for the most part, members of the industry comply with the current standards.” Adds the Commission, “many individual companies follow their own internal standards that exceed code requirements.”

Does the world still suffer from alcoholics and drunk drivers and other alcohol abusers? Sure.

Almost any good thing in life can be abused. So it is with alcohol.

But the answer is to punish those who act irresponsibly, not the product. A free society cannot allow well-intended busybodies to treat everyone else like children.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.