Ethics battle heats up over ads for PowerMaster

June 28, 1991|By Cindy Harper-Evans

The debate over PowerMaster -- a high-alcohol malt liquor that critics claim is being promoted heavily among low-income, inner-city black males -- shows that some people feel that target marketing is wrong if a selected consumer group is perceived as poorly educated and the product is potentially harmful.

However, target advertising is not new. In fact, research has shown that target marketing, no matter what the group, is a pretty smart way of focusing on potential consumers.

The beer and advertising industries call the debate over PowerMaster preposterous.

It is a controversy the cigarette industry is familiar with from watching R. J. Reynold's "Uptown" and "Dakota" cigarettes stamped out of the marketplace last year. Uptown was marketed toward blacks and Dakota toward poorly educated women, critics said.

It's also a controversy some are finding ironic because cigarette and alcohol companies were credited with opening doors for black male models two decades ago in television and print advertising.

Wisconsin-based G. Heileman Brewing Co., which makes PowerMaster in its Halethorpe brewery, is being asked by black leaders to stop marketing its new, high-octane malt liquor and to take it off the liquor store shelves altogether. So far, Heileman has refused to comment.

PowerMaster will officially be launced next week, but it has already appeared at some Baltimore liquor outlets.

Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden sent a letter Wednesday to the secretary of health and human services, Dr. Louis W. Sullivan, asking the nation's top health official to help with a nationwide effort to squash PowerMaster.

Mr. Snowden's letter came one day after the U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Antonia C. Novello, asked Heileman to scrap a sales campaign that she said appeared to be targeted at minority consumers, who research shows suffer disproportionately from alcohol-related diseases.

Billboard ads for the product, which were designed by Della Femina, McNamee of New York, feature the face of a young black man, a bottle of PowerMaster in the background, and the slogan: "Bold Not Harsh." The ad agency did not return repeated phone calls from The Sun Wednesday and yesterday.

After urging Heileman to take the word "power" out of its new malt's name, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has said it is planning to scrutinize all advertising and labels of malt liquors to make sure the names do not suggest alcoholic strength.

Malt liquors that could be affected by the increased scrutiny are those with names such as Heileman's Colt 45 (4.5 percent alcohol) and Miller Brewing Co.'s Magnum.

The demands to take PowerMaster off the shelf and the scrutiny of malt liquors in general are being criticized by the beer and advertising industries as patronizing to consumers.

"This is all very paternalistic and insulting," said Jerry M. Mosier, publisher of Advocacy Reports, a New Jersey trade newsletter. "Do you want people to tell you what's good for you and what you should be drinking?"

"Education is how to stop alcohol abuse -- not whitewashing billboards or limiting advertising," said John E. Shafer Jr., Miller Brewing Co.'s manager of alcohol and consumer issues.

Brewers say they feel they often are unjustly accused of socially irresponsible marketing techniques, while their efforts at educating the consumer are ignored.

Many malt liquor companys have initiated moderation campaigns, in

cluding Miller's "Think when you drink"; Anheuser-Busch Co.'s "Know when to say when"; and Coors Brewing Co.'s "Now. Not now."

Coors has also directed a moderation campaign toward the Hispanic community. "Pura vida," it says, meaning "pure life."

But Mr. Snowden is skeptical.

"These people should not be enticed into drinking more," he said. "For example, everyone knows Native Americans have problems with alcohol too. So putting up a billboard on a reservation saying 'drink in moderation' does not solve anything.

"If [Heileman] is getting adverse reactions from the very people they are targeting -- that should tell them something."

Malt liquors are particularly popular with black males, who also are significantly more likely than the rest of the population to die of cirrhosis of the liver, an ailment linked to alcoholism, according to federal health statistics.

Malts represent roughly 3 percent of the beer market and have sales of more than $1 billion. Roughly 27 percent of malt consumers are black, although only 12 percent of the U.S. population is black, according to the Beer Institute in Washington.

Critics say PowerMaster contains 5.9 percent alcohol by volume, 31 percent more than other malt liquors. Beer has an alcohol content of

less than 5 percent, and table wines have about 12 percent.

"If you're taking the moral perspective, American brewers should -- in this particular climate of neo-prohibitionism -- change their marketing tactics," said Peter Reid, editor of Modern Brewery Age.

Some have noted the irony of black community leaders complaining about blacks being targeted and used as actors in malt liquor ads.

Carter Bryant, now an art teacher in Baltimore's public school system, was one of the first black models to be used in a Colt 45 ad that appeared in Jet and Ebony magazines in 1974.

"We complained so much back then that we were not represented in

the commercials for products that we bought. Now we are, and we are complaining again," Mr. Bryant said.

"We've made inroads, and now we want to give that back," he said. "Whatever happened to people thinking on their own? We can decide if we want to drink malt liquor or not."

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