Addiction Community and Corporate Responsibility

Addiction Community’s Influence Over Corporate Responsibility Grows
June 1, 2007

Anheuser-Busch’s recent decision to pull its fruity Spykes drink mixers from the market represents the latest in a series of significant victories by the addiction field in confronting what advocates consider irresponsible marketing by big corporations.

After weeks of escalating complaints by public-health groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the Marin Institute,Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America and the Oregon Partnership, as well as a coalition of state attorneys general, Anheuser-Busch announced on May 17 that it was withdrawing Spykes from the market. The company continued to dispute assertions that Spykes was marketed to children, but company chairman August Busch acknowledged that parental concerns played a role in the decision to yank the product.

Many of the same groups were involved in a previous (and successful) advocacy campaign that resulted in Anheuser-Busch withdrawing "Bud Pong" games from the marketplace and ending its sponsorship of "Beer Pong" tournaments. Addiction activists complained that drinking games like Bud Pong, Beer Pong, and "Shots and Ladders" encouraged binge drinking and underage alcohol use.

The campaign, launched around the Christmas holidays, resulted in retailers like Target, Kohl’s, and Linens n’ Things halting sales of these games as well as another called "Drinko," an alcohol-fueled version of TV’s "Plinko." The Oregon Partnership also spearheaded a campaign to get beer-related t-shirts pulled from the shelves of Macy’s stores last October.

The Snowball Effect

Michael Scippa, director of advocacy at the Marin Institute, said that the field’s success with Spykes could boost ongoing campaigns against alcopops and other youth-oriented alcohol marketing. "I think every small victory helps to increase awareness among our constituencies," he said.

A forthcoming Marin report on the economic costs of underage drinking — estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually — should help "drive the message home" with the public, Scippa added. "People are beginning to understand how deeply we’re all affected" by underage drinking and alcohol marketing to youth, said Scippa.

Pete Schulberg, communications director of the Oregon Partnership, sees media coverage — and the improved ability of addiction advocacy groups to generate it — as the key to corporate responsibility. "It seems like some of these companies absolutely abhor negative media coverage," he said. "We’ve found that we can write a letter to a CEO and nothing happens; it’s only when there’s media coverage that action occurs."

Scippa says that shareholder pressure on big companies like Anheuser-Busch can play a major role in moderating corporate behavior, especially when controversial products like Spykes and Bud TV — the company’s floundering Internet media outlet — hurt the company’s bottom line as well as its public image. "We’re thrilled to see that investors may be the key to promoting corporate responsibility regarding marketing to youth," said Scippa.

Schulberg said that with the proliferation of blogs and other new online and alternative media, there are now more ways than ever for local groups to get their message out regarding corporate responsibility issues. "MSNBC did a story on Spykes and quoted us, and it turned out they heard about the issue from our blog," he said, noting that the Oregon Partnership sent out a Spykes press release to local media, but not national TV stations. "They probably never would have heard of us if it wasn’t for our blog."

With Google News subscribers and other Internet users now reading newspaper articles and watching local TV video clips from stations across the country, there’s more potential than ever for local advocacy campaigns to turn into national causes and stories. In the span of a few months, for example, the controversy over Spykes grew from a local issue in Oregon to one involving attorneys general nationwide.

"The state attorneys general have been flexing their muscles, and their involvement with these issues has increasingly caught the attention of producers like Anheuser-Busch," said George Hacker, director of CSPI’s alcohol policies project. Also, said Hacker, "There probably has been a minimal societal shift toward more sensitivity to these issues."

Prevention’s Growing Capabilities

Hacker said that as the prevention community matures, stabilizes and becomes more institutionalized, groups have become better at working with each other and sharing victories, making them more effective advocates.

"I don’t think we’ve won the war yet, but there is an identifiable commitment and growing expertise and effectiveness" in the addiction field, said Hacker, who cited the efforts of entities ranging from local grassroots groups to national organizations like CADCA, PIRE, the Marin Institute, and the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY). Many groups now "have the capability to generate instant visibility on these issues, and can put intense pressure on companies that threaten public safety."

Some advocates, however, worry that the field’s recent successes could prompt a backlash from the alcohol industry and its allies in Congress. While some groups, like CSPI, are privately funded, most organizations in the addiction field receive at least some federal funding, which could make them vulnerable to political pressure for speaking out against the alcohol industry, one longtime advocate told Join Together — requesting anonymity out of fear of making her organization a bigger target for industry pressure.

Marin’s Scippa was less concerned about industry attacks against what he described as a "vast network" of prevention organizations, noting that many have limited their exposure by relying on groups like Marin to advocate on some of the more sensitive topics involving the alcohol industry.

While generally loathe to embrace the alcohol industry as a partner, some addiction field advocates note that the industry’s ardent support of the federal STOP Underage Drinking Act — as well as agreements by companies like Beam Global and the Sazerac Company to tighten rules on marketing that appeals to youth — could be signs of growing pragmatism among alcohol marketers.

CAMY head David Jernigan, for example, called Beam’s decision to limit its liquor advertising to publications with at least 85 percent adult audiences a "significant movement toward further reducing youth exposure to alcohol industry advertising. It shows that Beam is serious about taking effective, measurable steps to reduce the appeal of its products to young people."

By Bob Curley AT Join Together Online

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