Alcohol and Tobacco on the Web

Many battles are being fought over how to control the astounding new virtual interactive landscape known as the World Wide Web. Perhaps the most far-reaching and the one that will affect our lives most profoundly is that over how advertisers will use this compelling new medium. In the past several years advertisers have taken advantage of the new interactive capabilities of the Web and have colonized it with a bewildering array of products, pioneering dramatic new techniques that promise to make the Web the most effective marketing tool ever envisioned.On the Web, personalized targeted advertising can be used most effectively to build a relationship with a brand; it can be an animated character that knows your name and preferences communicating with you one to one; advertising can take the form of games and contests -- entertaining you while collecting valuable personal information; it can be a magazine tailored to your very own personal preferences -- your favorite rock stars perhaps. With all this capability, it is not surprising that the Web is being used to promote everything from democracy to specialty scotch. And it is clear that children are particularly vulnerable to these new powerful marketing techniques.There is wide concern that the advertising techniques developing on the Web could have grave consequences for those who care about health issues, particularly in the area of alcohol and tobacco marketing. And what is happening on the Web will soon be on your television, because TVs and computers are quickly merging into powerful new digital machines. Imagine a world where the Budweiser frogs know your child's name and pop up on the screen singing her favorite tunes. Imagine a world where teenagers can sign-on and learn about the special "buzz" of clove cigarettes, and be guided to a site to buy them.The monitoring of online advertising of tobacco and alcohol over the past three years has found that some companies using the Web to market their products appear to be snaring teens and younger children looking for games, articles, chat and cool clothing. Hard liquor, beer and cigar companies, in particular, have created a subculture on the Web of hip, youth-oriented sites that use a sophisticated blend of online devices to attract young people and hook them into a community of like-minded drinkers or smokers, below the attention radar of many parents and federal regulators.At the Cuervo Gold Tequila site, for example, consumers are urged to "defect" and join the Cuervo Republic, a fantasy land of "untamed spirits," where they can play interactive games, win prizes and email Cuervo postcards to their friends. At the Smoker's homepage, children can read reviews of cigarette brands, get a list of movies with great smoking scenes and download smoking-related rock music.CME did an extensive study of online alcohol and tobacco advertising in the fall of 1996 and updated the study this spring. The study looked at the content of over a hundred commercial Web sites. To determine if the sites targeted young people, the researchers assessed whether the sites used music, personalities, language or graphic techniques popular in youth culture or which would be particularly attractive to college- or high-school-aged students. They also looked for sites that offered contests, interactive games, or online magazines (e-zines) geared to youth, or that sponsored youth-oriented music or sports events.The study found several different types of alcohol and tobacco sites on the Web. Some commercial sites -- such as microbreweries and small vineyards -- target an older, wealthier market. But there are also many large alcohol manufacturers on the Web, and many beer and liquor companies maintain Web sites that appear to be designed specifically to appeal to college-aged and younger drinkers. Beyond the tobacco and alcohol companies themselves, there are also online commercial magazines that promote a drinking or smoking culture, and hundreds of online vendors that sell alcohol and tobacco products over the Web. There also are scores of sites maintained by individuals, many of them college students, that post recipes and drinking stories, or host pro-smoking/drinking chat rooms.The sites that appear to appeal to youth often strive to create a community of brand-loyal enthusiasts, a place where lonely teens can find peers, talk and support for risky activities like smoking and binge drinking. Known among marketers as "relational" advertising, this effort to build a relationship between the user and the product is the dominant trend in marketing on the Web and is already heavily exploited by the alcohol industry.Many of the sites, like much of the advertising on the Web, tend to blur the lines between information, advertising and market research. Chat lines can be laced with promotional messages, market surveys masquerade as amusing quizzes or games, stories and articles often carry subtle sales pitches, and brand icons dot the Web site landscape. Young viewers, less media-savvy than their elders, may find it difficult to sort the hype from the hip.In the 1998 update, CME found that commercial alcohol companies continue as a dominant Web presence, aggressively marketing their products in formats that could appeal to teens and college-age drinkers. Out of 48 sites selected for the update, 37 appealed broadly to youth through use of various online advertising techniques. Of those 37 sites, 28 used rock music and/or sophisticated video and graphic design similar to that found in youth-oriented magazines or online 'zines. Many sites, 25, carried information on local parties and product-related or youth-oriented events. Games were popular, showing up on 23 sites, and 13 sites ran information on sporting events. Many of the sites, 22, carried recipes for so-called "bridge drinks," sweet concoctions that disguise the taste of alcohol and are more appealing to novice drinkers. Use of hip language and youth-oriented jokes or references appeared on 40 of the sites.Many of the sites employ virtual settings and characters, sometimes with motion video, to create an online world that is not only exciting but designed to bring viewers back to follow an unfolding story, try new games or tap into live chats. Several offered audio, either music or amusing quotes, that could be downloaded, and several sites boasted brand spokescharacters, such as the pirate Capt. Morgan (at the Morgan's Rum site, or the Bud Ice penguin ( and branded merchandise are also common among these sites. The study found 21 sites that sold branded goods, all of them hawking items popular with young people, and 22 sites offered free giveaways, often games or screensavers that commonly feature product icons.But despite the prevalence of material attractive to young people, just over half of the alcohol sites analyzed had age warnings posted on their homepages -- and those are easily bypassed. Only 5 of the 48 sites analyzed included any information on substance abuse, and it is usually isolated on side pages rather than included on pages central to the Web sites.Big Tobacco and the WebSo far, the big cigarette companies have limited their overt sponsorships of Web sites to corporate public relations sites, probably out of fear of new regulatory constraints or a political backlash. But it is clear from the proliferation of smoking-related online e-zines, and the recent explosion in commercial cigar sites, that the Web could be transformed overnight into a powerful marketing tool for tobacco companies intent on reaching younger consumers. With the past efforts of the tobacco companies to market cigarettes directly to children, there is little doubt that -- without the threat of federal regulation -- the tobacco industry would be creating exciting Web sites aimed at teens similar to those pioneered by the alcohol companies.For now, much of the tobacco presence on the Web is at magazine sites that promote a general smoking culture, and at cigar sites that hawk such product-related items as stogies, branded baseball caps and humidor gatherings in major cities.In the 1998 update of its study, CME analyzed 62 tobacco Web sites, including 36 sites analyzed in 1996. Twenty-six sites from the earlier study could not be located in 1998, but that does not mean the number of tobacco sites has decreased. In fact, CME found over 50 new tobacco homepages and analyzed 20 new cigar sites, as well as six new cigarette sites, all of which appeared to have some qualities that could be attractive to youth. (The 1996 study looked primarily at cigarette smoking sites and included only a few cigar sites.)Of the 62 sites reviewed, most were not targeting youth as directly as alcohol sites do. Only three of all the sites appeared to primarily target younger consumers. Instead, the cigar and smoking culture sites promote tobacco use through portraying an enviable world where glamorous, young professionals enjoy the finer things in life, such as martinis, steak and cigars. While these sites do not directly target teens or younger children, they use various advertising techniques that can appeal to youth and could have a subtle but distinct influence on children venturing about on the Web.Of the 62 tobacco sites analyzed in the update, 32 included content about popular youth culture -- music, movies, parties, travel and sporting events -- that could attract younger viewers. Thirty-six of the sites included either sophisticated graphics, cartoons, youth-oriented language or chat rooms that could appeal to youth. Fourteen sites sold branded merchandise of items popular with young people -- leather jackets, smoking accessories and branded baseball caps -- and 9 of the sites offered free giveaways. Most of the sites provided links to other tobacco sites, and 21 sites allowed for direct ordering of tobacco products. Only 3 of the 62 sites included age warnings and only 6 sites offered information on substance abuse.The explosion of cigar sites on the Web is an interesting example of how advertisers deliberately try to expand their market to younger consumers and may explain some of the surge in teen cigar smoking. While the occasional cigar may pose a relatively small health risk for adults, health experts say teens are more vulnerable to tobacco addiction and could become addicted to smoking through trying cigars. A recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control on youth smoking found that cigar smoking rates have increased by a third among all high school students since 1991, and that 22 percent of teens had smoked a cigar in the previous month.In fact, a recent report from the National Cancer Institute found that cigar smoking is more dangerous for all age groups than most people believe -- smoking five cigars a day poses an equivalent cancer risk as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.On the Web, however, cigar smoking is presented as glamorous and ultra-hip rather than hazardous to one's health. Cigar sites on the Web feature celebrities that smoke, tie-ins with television shows and movies, and link regularly with drinking and youth-oriented activities, such as skiing and high-stimulation sports like hang-gliding. The sites also list soirees and humidors opening in different cities, and cigar-tastings promoted by particular manufacturers. Most of the cigar sites on the Web offer direct sales of cigars, and branded merchandise of items popular with teens, like baseball caps and leather jackets.Congress is debating tobacco legislation this year that may include expanded restrictions on tobacco advertising, particularly in ways that protect children. S.1415, the proposed Tobacco Products Control Act of 1998 sponsored by Senator John McCain (R-AZ), only partially extends current restrictions on cigarette ads on television to the Internet. The proposed bill (at time of publication of this issue) contains a provision which requires Internet advertising of tobacco products to be "inaccessible in or from the U.S. to all individuals under the age of 18 years."This provision, however, raises the specter that video ads on the Internet promoting tobacco use could eventually appear and target anyone over 18. As television and the Internet move closer to merging in the not-too-distant future, what is on the Internet today will be seen on TV screens tomorrow. As one is able to easily flip between TV programs and Internet pages, interactive games, movie-like commercials promoting tobacco, or entire tobacco industry sponsored weekly sitcoms could become part of Americans' new media diet.It is CME's position, however, that the 1970 Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, 15 U.S.C. 1335, already applies to the Internet and the World Wide Web. Under that law, cigarette ads are barred from "any medium of electronic communication subject to the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission." Leading communications scholars, such as Henry Geller, a former White House advisor on communications policy, believe that the Internet clearly is subject to the jurisdiction of the FCC, as is telecommunications and cable television. The fact that the World Wide Web could not have been foreseen by Congress when it drafted the 1970 restrictions on cigarette advertising does not undermine the statute's applicability to new media. Other "new technologies," including cable and direct broadcast satellite, were not available in 1970; yet these media are now included under the 1970 cigarette advertising act.It will be critical to ensure that the Internet and other new media protect adults as well as children from advertising of tobacco products. Otherwise, some health experts say, a new generation of older smokers run the risk of being confronted with Joe Camel or the Marlboro Man in cyberspace. w ***Bud Icewww.budice.comAnheuser-Busch, which has pioneered the use of animal characters as brand icons, features the Bud Ice penguin as the star of the Bud Ice Web site. The site is similar to others developed by Anheuser-Busch to promote animal characters made famous in their television commercials, including the Budweiser frogs and lizards. It includes a detailed biography of the character that portrays him as a cool guy familiar with youth culture, weaves in references to games and sports events sponsored by the brewery, and provides a platform for selling character-branded merchandise.The Bud Ice penguin, according to the Web site, grew up in Antarctica and began his travels as a beach bum surfing off the coast of Tierra del Fuego. One day, "after a particularly gnarly day of surfing," the penguin went off in search of the perfect beverage to quench his "gargantuan thirst." He finally found it in Bud Ice and has since spent his time donning disguises to snag bottles of the brew. The site warns that the penguin may masquerade as your "thirsty brother-in-law, offering to clean out your refrigerator." The site includes a sweepstakes to win a trip to the National Hockey League Awards and a catalogue of "coool" penguin-wear. It also provides a guide to new Bud Ice penguin commercials that can be seen during the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, and a link to Fox television sports Web site so readers can check game times and schedules. The homepage does not give an age warning, though it does say that Bud Ice is a drink for adults to consume responsibly.*** is typical of smoking-culture sites on the Web that promote smoking through a variety of "relational" devices that hook readers and entice them back to the site for regular visits. The strongest form of relational marketing is chat, and offers a well-trafficked chat room that is linked to a "flirt" page which details the ages, smoking habits, addresses and email accounts of regular chat members so visitors can link individually with people they like. "In a time of such heavy criticism," states the opening page, "we felt there needed to be a place for smokers to speak up, reach out and feel connected to other smokers." Most of the pro-smoking sites on the Web are careful to include links to other pro-smoking sites. Indeed, the smoking community on the Web is tightly knit, with much trading of information and gossip among the sites. is a key contributor to this debate, and features a list of 263 links to other smoking-related Web sites, a list that has grown considerably in the past two years. Links include personal pages of smoking chat room regulars, some of which appear by their title to be pornographic; online smoke shops, where you can purchase cigars, tax-free cigarettes and smoking accessories; other smoking lifestyle pages; pro-smoking political organizations; numerous cigar sites, and some specialized smoking sites, such as The Simpsons and Smoking Page, which is "a look at who smokes on the Simpsons TV Cartoon." The links also include health sites, some that are anti-smoking, and others, like the "meat kills more than smoking" site, that are pro-smoking.***Smoke Signalswww.smokesigs.comSmoke Signals is a site that promotes a monthly magazine on "smoking as a sexual fetish." "If you love the sight of a woman lighting up, inhaling, exhaling, Smoke Signals is for you!" The homepage boasts a picture of heavy-lidded "Persephone," with two-inch magenta nails, smoking a large cigar. She appears to be featured in the free video you get when you subscribe, which stars her and other glamorous women doing french inhales, nose exhales, rings and snaps. The site includes a discussion of why some men (and women, they admit) enjoy watching women smoke, theorizing that it makes women appear self-confident and less sexually inhibited, even naughty. While the site does not allow access to the magazine's content, it does list tv and cable schedules of movies with smoking scenes, provides a chat room for other smoking fetish types, reviews what is in each month's edition of Smoke Signals and where you can buy one if you don't subscribe, and offers some excerpts from past editions. It also has a page of numerous links to other smoking fetish pages, including several personal "teen smoking pages" posted by underage smokers, and several links to pornographic smoking sites.


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.