Pundits across the political spectrum joined ordinary Americans on social media, wearing out their computer keyboards bashing U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ plan to crack down on states violating federal marijuana laws.
While I officially add my complaint to the chorus of boos directed at Sessions the weed warrior, his announcement casts a hypocritical light on another U.S. problem that deserves more immediate attention — alcohol advertising on American television.
Younger readers may not realize it’s relatively new for television ads to depict entertainment titans in tuxedos toasting their glasses of Grey Goose vodka, or rugged mountain men perched atop a precarious ledge clinking their Tin Cup whiskey after a dangerous climb.
In fact, hard liquor ads on television and radio were banned in America until the 1990s. But rather than outlawed by the government, the broadcast advertising blackout was self-imposed by the liquor industry. So for decades, beer and wine makers advertised on radio and television, while the spirits industry abstained.
Hard liquor companies initially refrained from advertising because they feared a backlash. If their products became too popular, calls for Prohibition could return. Skeptics even speculated the liquor industry hoped by voluntarily keeping their products off the airwaves, either the beer and wine industries would follow suit, or lawmakers would force their hands.
No such government regulation ever came about. Congress eventually outlawed tobacco advertising on television in 1970, but the beer ad wars intensified during that decade. Miller and Budweiser went toe-to-toe, filling the commercial breaks of sporting events with ads mostly featuring American athletic heroes. Later, kids were targeted with gimmicks like talking frogs and partying dogs.
Eventually in 1996, liquor companies wanted in on the TV ad game. The industry even threw down the victim card, and played on the public’s general misconception that hard liquor ads had been banned by law all along.
“There’s no basis for letting two forms of alcohol advertising, beer and wine, on television and radio, and discriminating against another form,” said Fred Meister, president and CEO of the distilled spirits council at the time. Yes, the head of a multi-billion dollar industry was claiming “discrimination” based on self-imposed restrictions.
While it’s true the major television networks also had their own voluntary ban on hard liquor ads in place, that was essentially a meaningless gesture given the booze industry’s long-stated lack of willingness to advertise. The networks of course folded on their principled stand after cable channels began raking in liquor company ad cash. It’s hard to imagine the networks denying the dollars in the pre-cable era if given the opportunity.
We’d all like to think we’re immune to advertising’s powers of persuasion, but after decades of watching these corporate behemoths grow, with their brands burning into our psyches, it’s pretty clear their extensive investment in advertising is not a waste of money.
According to the National Institutes of Health, Americans are drinking themselves to death at rates not seen in generations. Only smoking remains a greater cause of preventable deaths in America, as drinking tops both poor diet and lack of exercise. Yet our media would rather you kick back with a cold one from their sponsor while they tell you about the opioid crisis, the scare that replaced the meth crisis, that replaced the crack crisis, that replaced the cocaine crisis, that replaced the marijuana crisis.
So while Sessions floats his renewed war on an herb that kills cancer and not people, the deadly and legal alcohol industry continues its assault on both our bodies and our minds. Meanwhile, in several countries including France, Norway, Nigeria, and dare I mention Russia and Ukraine, alcohol ads are illegal. We should worry less about weed and join these nations in taking one step in confronting a more serious problem. #IntheWeeds
(Personal disclaimer: After a 35-year fight with alcoholism, I’ve now managed to stay off the booze for nearly two years. Numerous failed attempts at recovery were followed by what hopefully forever remains my final effort to kick liquor — thanks in part to the help of medical marijuana.)
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