In the long ago year I was born, 1948, adults decided that neither I nor anyone else in my
generation or succeeding generations would be sold hard liquor through the invention of television.
I never thought about this issue growing up, because no one ever talked about it, and I
didn't miss TV ads for gin or scotch, since neither I nor anyone else had ever seen them.
In the distant decades and long, quiet nights before television much of the country had
some familiarity with hard liquor. But one of the results of the voluntary, but negotiated
agreement among the hard liquor industry companies and TV broadcasters not to use the airwaves was that generations in this country have grown up without knowing how to spell from absinthe to zombies-- without knowing the a's through z's of the liquor business.
This seems like one of those absences of knowledge that is devoutly to be wished. If we
regret anything about advertising on tv in my youth, it is the millions who died after being sucked
into cigarette smoking by the Marlboro Man.
Yet, last year, faced with declining name recognition and dwindling sales among the
younger generations, the hard liquor industry announced that it had suddenly discovered the need to repeal its time-honored policy of not advertising on television.
Instead it is throwing millions of dollars at TV stations in order to get them to carry ads
for hard liquor on broadcast TV.
The hard liquor crowd says it isn't interested in underage drinkers. But it is trying to place its ads on shows that youths by the millions watch. And it plainly seeks popularity among young people.
Hard liquor, I suppose, is just one of many possibly dangerous experiences that adults,
society, and government believe a person of a certain age may select for himself or herself.
And who doesn't want experience?
What's the reason for life if it isn't adventure, excitement, stimulus, entertainment,
But notwithstanding the occasional mosh pit and rave band most people try to put
experience into some kind of ordered pattern.
A rich, fully developed life is about many different things, but one aspect of everyone's
life, through the years, is the constant resort to some value system, some internal filtering
mechanism, in order to decide what experiences are enjoyable and what are painful, what are
desirable and what are best avoided, what are good and what are bad.
But where does this filtering mechanism come from?
Microsoft would sell it to you -- a software filtering mechanism -- if you were a computer.
Now if you were a computer you could be a chess grandmaster, but you couldn't learn
from experiences and you couldn't develop your own value system for selecting or rejecting the
myriad choices life presents.
The power to select is a proof of humanity.
And as a human being you are by definition not a suitable recipient of a software package in order to have a selection mechanism -- a way to figure out why some things make you happy and some things make you so sad. So where does that selection mechanism come from?
It comes from family. It comes from friends. And like it or not it, comes from TV.
Your family has a right to expect government to help it do its job. After all, government, Lincoln said, is the organization that we use to act collectively better than we can act alone. And so government should give every member of every family opportunities for education and work, guarantees of safe water, food, environment, and neighborhoods, promises of equitable treatment under law and the opportunity to participate in government.
But most of us believe that a family should make its own value decisions. Isn't that what
the First Amendment says: freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom of association --
these freedoms are guaranteed to all. As an individual and a member of a family you have a
constitutional right not to have others, through the authority of government, impose on these
In short, you have a right to develop your own value system, your own filtering
mechanism, your own method of deciding the answer to the question of what is good and what
isn't good about the infinite range of experiences available to you.
One of those possible experiences is alcohol.
You do not have a constitutional right to drink alcohol at any age but you certainly have
a constitutional right to make up your own mind about whether alcohol is good or bad.
Some religions, some codes of ethics, will teach you that it is never permissible; others
take a more permissive attitude.
You have a right, when you are of age, to follow your own line with respect to the possible experience of drinking alcohol.
Government, which in this context means society or the group of other people, have no
right to tell you what your value system should be as to alcohol.
So if you have a right to develop your own value system about alcohol, then how should
we think about the possibility of using TV to convince people to drink alcohol?
Should we take the view that TV helps inform you about everything from hip language to
current sexual mores to chic clothes, so why shouldn't it tell you about hard liquor?
Should we just assume that underage youths will follow the law, not drink until age 21, and therefore that it does no harm if they arrive at age 21 fully informed by television about the broad range of possible hard liquors to taste?
Should we think of TV as a store that won't sell you the drink but will make sure you can
tell rye from scotch, bourbon from Southern Comfort, tequila from Tanqueray?
Otherwise how could you make informed choices when the calendar flips over and your
driver's license proves you're legal?
Or is it possible that TV is more insidious and invasive than that? Is it possible that my parents' generation was right when it decided that TV was too powerful a medium to use for advertising a product that is illegal and desperately dangerous for youths to take?
As recently as May of 1993, Fred Meister, the head of distilled-spirits trade association,
bragged to the Senate Commerce Committee about how the spirits industry "has recognized its
responsibility to combat alcohol abuse" with its "extraordinary record of self-regulation."
He continued, "We voluntarily do not advertise on radio or television, the most modern
and widespread means of brand advertising ever developed."
We can all understand that the companies that put Mr. Meister on their payroll might
change their mind about the importance of selling their brands to youths and selling their drink to people in their 20s.
But isn't it possible that just because they change their minds, we shouldn't change ours?
Isn't it possible that there is a difference between respecting every youth's right to form
his or her own value system and tolerating a declaration of an advertising war on the sensibilities of everyone from age 2 to 20 -- the 50 million youths who are part of the country's television audience?
My children are 15, 11, and 8.
I trust my 15-year-old to make the right decisions about life's possible experiences. I have to trust him. He is making so many of those decisions on his own, at school, at parties, on the sports field.
I don't see why my son can't wait to get the information he desires about hard liquor, or
any alcoholic beverage, until he turns 21. Why does he have to get pounded on the pupils for 20
years in advance of the legal drinking age with the message that he would really like to be drinking Chivas Regal?
Then there are my other two kids.
Everyone here knows that the ability to make intelligent choices about possible experiences is an ability that is developed over time. You aren't born with it. Every day my wife Betsy and I see that our 15-year-old makes smarter decisions than he made last year; and that he always makes more well informed, more thoughtful decisions than our 11-year-old. Similarly our 11-year-old makes better decisions than our 8-year-old.
Incidentally, I might be living proof at age 49 that this process levels out after, say, 30 or
So why should my wife and I, and why should anyone here, want my 11-year-old or my
8-year-old to be bombarded with pitches to partake of hard liquor drinks?
In a survey conducted by USA TODAY, an amazing 99% of teens surveyed knew the
Budweiser-croaking frogs. And 92% said they liked the frogs. How does this compare to Mickey Mouse? What's positive about this name recognition for Budweiser's frogs among underage drinkers?
Do we need then to extend this sort of permissiveness to hard liquor? Do we want a world in which my 11 year old and my 8 year old will know vodka brands as well as they know Coke and Pepsi?
The hard liquor industry, with new awareness of its marketing problems, proclaims with
a newly discovered righteousness that it is unfair that beer should be on TV and hard liquor isn't.
Hard liquor forgets that it agreed for forty years that TV and its product were too powerful a combination to be tolerated safely in a country where teenagers watch an average of 50 hours of TV a week.
Hard liquor ignores the obvious fact that if it were a bad idea to have beer on TV, then
putting hard liquor ads on is a perfect example of the theory that "two wrongs make a right." And
that -- we know from church, synagogue and school -- is not a valid theory.
And hard liquor could of course bring down the marketing advantage it claims beer possesses by petitioning to have beer ads on TV curtailed. But that, not surprisingly, it doesn't want to do.
So it seems plain to me that whether or not beer ads are on TV, the fact is that hard liquor companies aren't really concerned about equal opportunity to compete with Budweiser. What they want is equal opportunity to compete with soap, software, and salsa for attention in the vast tv audience of America's youth.
President Bill Clinton, 240 public interest organizations, thirteen States and Puerto Rico, and many others have asked the Federal Communications Commission to look seriously into the question of whether hard liquor ads on broadcast TV should be allowed, or prohibited, or
permitted only on shows very late at night when comparatively few young children are in the
We are being petitioned because we represent the public as to all uses of the public
property of the airwaves.
You might watch broadcast TV on a cable connection, but the medium is sent over the air, by the miracle of electromagnetic radiation, and the use of the airwaves for this purpose is a use of public property.
Different frequencies of radiation are used to send different signals. You can pick a
frequency for example by turning a channel on a TV or tuning to 101.3 , the oldies station, on
your FM radio dial.
These frequencies are owned by the public and anyone who wants to use them has to get a license from the FCC.
In this license we say that the use of the airwaves always has to be consistent with the
public interest, convenience and necessity.
The public interest can be served by using airwaves to pursue commercial interest. And
so TV stations use the airwaves to pursue commercial profits from selling ads.
But the public interest can also be served by using the airwaves to further community
And I think it's certainly possible that a community has an interest in making sure that its youth is not subjected to the powerful ads for hard liquor that TV could be pounding them with if the booze boys had their way.
I think the right thing for the FCC to do is to conduct a public inquiry into this topic.
We should write up a list of the relevant questions.
Is hard liquor dangerous for kids to learn about?
Is there a relationship between hard liquor ads and underage drinking?
Do you think TV ads present all sides of issues? Do you think that TV ads for certain products are potentially dangerous for youths? What about for particularly young children? MADD has identified certain types of ads as more likely to appeal to young people. They suggest that ads for alcohol products not use celebrities, music stars, athletes, animals, cartoon characters, or rock concerts. Do you agree that these kinds of images attract young people's attention to ads?
Would hard liquor ads on TV be consistent with an individual's right to pick his or her own value system and to learn about products for sale? Or are they dangerous for young children whose sensibilities, selection mechanisms, codes of conduct, are not yet fully formed?
All questions should be stated. You could give us questions.
We would publish them as a formal inquiry. Then anyone who had anything to say on the
subject would write us comments. All comments would be public, posted on the Internet. We
could have a national debate before the hard liquor ads are widespread on TV, in time to make the right decision as a country.
And then the debate would lead to a report to Congress, the President, and the American people.
After that, at the FCC, we could consider whether to issue a Notice of Proposed
We might decide to have a rule that kicks hard liquor off TV; or a rule that requires the
hard liquor industry to give one free counter-ad for anti-substance abuse purposes for every paid ad it buys, or a rule that says hard liquor ads can only be on TV after 11 pm, or a rule that
requires the ads to be coded so that they could be blocked from the screen by the V-Chip. What
else might we consider?
Should we focus on the need to have PSA's address substance abuse?
Public service announcements, or PSA's, are ads that are put on for the public's benefit, not for anyone's profit. A nonprofit or governmental group gets an announcement made for free by an ad agency, and a national network or local TV station runs it for free. That way the public gets reminded to wear seat belts, to help prevent forest fires, to recycle, to eat right.
For example, the "Friends don't let friends drive drunk" ad made an important
breakthrough. Advertisers taught us all that it was more effective to educate those who could
intervene in a dangerous situation, rather than focus on the horrors of drunk driving.
So advertisers saved lives in this country by shifting the message to friends and to their
own behavior, and away from the rationalizing drinkers.
You all may not be as used to seeing these ads as was true in the past. In recent years, the amount of time devoted to PSA's in network prime time has been dropping. That's a real cause for concern, because these ads make a huge difference in people's behavior.
As I mentioned, when I was growing up, cigarette ads were a huge presence on TV. In the late '60's, however, the FCC decided that, given the dangers posed by cigarettes, broadcasters who aired cigarette ads should also be required to run a certain number of "counter-ads" that discussed the health risks of smoking. The effect was striking. Smoking levels declined dramatically.
Broadcasters use the public airwaves to conduct their business. In return for their use of the public spectrum, they are required to serve the "public interest, convenience, and necessity." What a broadcaster should do to satisfy this "public interest" obligation has long been the source of debate at the Commission.
Don't you think broadcasters should continue to give time over to PSA's? Isn't it a good
thing to use the powerful medium of television to help youths develop those selection mechanisms, those value systems, those ways to sort our what experiences are good and what are not so good?
Big Brother TV shouldn't and can't replace family or church or synagogue or school in
developing ethical standards or even thoughtful decision-making methods for youths.
But TV can give us information about exactly why some things can feel temporarily good
but end up making you feel bad.
TV can give many young people information that in turn will help them make wise
So perhaps we need at the FCC a combination of some sensible rule about a minimum
number of PSAs that broadcasters should provide and some sensible rule about what to advertise on TV and when to advertise it.
Won't you help us at the FCC figure out such rules? We will soon begin a proceeding to
consider what the public-interest obligations of spectrum-users should be.
Vice President Al Gore will be leading a Commission that will be looking into this topic.
I hope you will participate in its activities.
Television itself is constantly changing. Cable and DBS have given us much more choice in what we can watch. The V-Chip will give us filtering mechanisms so that we can choose whether or not we want to receive a particular program. The introduction of digital television may bring about the merger of personal computers and televisions, so that we can watch our favorite shows on the same equipment that we use as a computer. Television will continue to be a major force in everyone's lives, and in our society. What do you think should be done to harness the blind power of television -- to keep its massive force from harming its viewers, and to use it to help, not hurt, the people who watch?