Liquor Ads on the Rocks

January 22, 1997 • Commentary
This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

You’d think cocaine traffickers had taken over Madison Avenue. Shortly after we toast the new year, the Federal Communications Commission plans to launch an investigation. The Federal Trade Commission has already done so. The president and Senate majority leader have issued threats; newspaper columnists and editorial writers have fulminated. What’s the problem? Joseph E. Seagram & Sons has begun advertising its Crown Royal Canadian whiskey on TV, breaking the industry’s voluntary ban on broadcast ads.

Curious are the ubiquitous wailing and gnashing of teeth that have greeted Seagram’s decision. One of the hallmarks of a free society is the right to sell products to willing consumers. A second feature, guaranteed by the First Amendment, is the right to advertise products that are legal. Hence, beer and wine are not only available to adults, but also seen in print and on television. In fact, the beer industry alone spends more than $600 million annually on advertising.

Why not liquor, then? The FTC, it seems, is concerned that children may see Seagram’s ads. For the same reason the agency is also investigating the Stroh Brewery Co.‘s advertising of malt liquor, which has a higher alcohol content than most beers. FCC Chairman Reed Hundt says he too wants to restrict liquor ads, even though the FCC has not traditionally regulated advertising. The baying legislative hounds are using the same paternalistic excuse—liquor advertising for anyone at any time might be seen by children. Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D., Mass.) contends that the industry’s voluntary ban “shielded generations of America’s children from the kind of predatory broadcast advertising practices that American brewers use to mass‐​market beer.” For this reason, Rep. Kennedy has introduced the “Just Say No” Act to outlaw liquor (but not beer) ads, to “send a clear message that liquor profiteering at the expense of America’s children is … unacceptable.”

Of course, few people really favor “liquor profiteering at the expense of America’s children.” And that isn’t what Seagram is doing by advertising a legal product used by tens of millions of adults.

First, it isn’t clear that advertising has a substantial impact on the demand for alcohol by either adults or children. Companies like Seagram use ads more to increase market share than to turn teetotalers into drinkers. A decade ago, a more sober FTC admitted that there was “no reliable basis to conclude that alcohol advertising significantly affects consumption, let alone abuse” and that “absent such evidence, there is no basis for concluding that rules banning or otherwise limiting alcohol advertising would offer significant protection to the public.”

Second, even if advertising did substantially affect demand, what would be wrong with distillers encouraging people to use more of their products? Some people drink too much, but that’s not the fault of advertising. Alcoholics don’t need to be urged to take a drink. Most Americans enjoy drinking, and drink responsibly. They have a right to receive information about different drinks from the sellers, unimpeded by government.

If Washington can ban the advertising of products at will, what is to stop the government from deciding to forbid auto makers from marketing fast cars, or low‐​mileage ones, or outlaw butter ads, or bar the broadcast of any ad that encourages selfishness and consumerism? Every private economic decision would become an arbitrary political one.

Third, the fact that children might see alcohol ads doesn’t justify treating everyone like children by banning such advertising. Parents have the primary responsibility for protecting their kids and guiding them into adulthood. Government’s principal duty is to protect people in the exercise of their freedom, including enjoying a drink or two, in daily life. To circumscribe those rights in the name of protecting children would violate the very purpose of government.

Few products exist that could not, if misused, hurt children. Cars, riding mowers, high‐​fat food, computers: almost every good advertised on the airwaves may have some inadvertent adverse effect on the young. That’s no excuse for banning ads. Government needs to punish abusive, not innocent, behavior‐​say, selling alcohol of any sort to minors‐​rather than advertising whiskey. The case for limited paternalism focused on children does not justify pervasive paternalism penalizing adults as well.

However unpopular Seagram’s decision to advertise its products on television, in a free society this sort of choice belongs to the company. If the political mob now forming in Washington compels Seagram to back down, the American Constitution, not the Canadian company, will be the primary loser.

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