Mark Curtis

It was only a matter of time before the anti-alcohol brigade would fuse with those who believe the Web is driven by wickedly seductive demons of interactivity. In the US, the Center for Media Education (CME) claims that alcohol and tobacco brands are deliberately appealing to underage youth through the Internet (MW March 28).

They identify various US-based sites, including activity by Budweiser, Molson and José Cuervo. As we have developed interactive media for alcohol brands, including Websites for Carlsberg, Beefeater and Barking Frog, I was interested to visit these American corrupters of the young to know what I should avoid. I saw nothing that could possibly be interpreted as overtly targeting young people (even allowing for a drinking age of 21).

The difficulty is that distinguishing between material of interest to a 23-year-old and a late teenager is very hard. Anything that appeals to the young legal drinker might attract their still younger sibling.

This seems to be perfectly well accepted in mainstream media and sponsorship. Indeed, beer brands are conspicuous for their responsible support of soccer and American Football, which are highly appealing to all ages.

In more than ten years of work with various drinks companies I have never once heard anyone suggest that a brand should target underage drinkers.

I suspect the problem is the hysteria surrounding the Web – certain types find it extremely threatening. You can hear it in the language: the CME claims that alcohol manufacturers have “seized upon the Web” with “hundreds of sites indiscriminately promoting the use of alcohol” and that asserts “dangerous new behaviours can be fostered”. The dangers apparently lie in “vivid graphics” and “appealing interactivity”. If only!

Even if you accepted the premise that young people are trembling with anticipation for all this, the Web is still limited in its ability to deliver compelling entertainment.

As for tobacco, there is no evidence that anything is taking place which is not covered by existing legislation. Outright branding is prohibited in the US and I know of no tobacco sites in the UK.

Unless society decides to ban the advertising of alcohol, the Web is as good a place to promote it as any – arguably better as users have to choose to participate in communication, unlike traditional media, something that the CME conveniently ignores.

Like most people, I’d feel more than a bit uncomfortable if I thought drinks were being targeted directly at underage consumers. So fine, don’t associate with obviously youthful icons like the Spice Girls and don’t adopt design values that connote teenage media. Apply the rules that govern other marketing behaviour.

There’s evidence here of the same mentality that created so much media interest in the Web angle on the suicide cult, Heaven’s Gate. But, according to The Sunday Times, Internet users widely rejected and ridiculed the cult on user groups.

Right now the Web has all the potential to be a great and powerful medium of communication – let’s not ruin it by assuming that its users are helpless infants incapable of evaluating what they see.

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