Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Brewers Calls in the Lawyers. Is Anyone Buying This?

By now, it's probably safe to say that we're all accustomed to – though not necessarily comfortable with – the overlawyerization of American society. This is typically, and perhaps most visibly, demonstrated by corporations that seem to go out of their way in every conceivable fashion to avoid being sued. (What the hell else to make of this Bridgestone ad that demonstrates the tires' superior maneuverability and then, inexplicably, commands that you "do not attempt"?)

Little wonder that alcohol companies – you know, the makers and peddlers of that dangerous sauce – would be as keen as anyone to keep the lawsuits and judgments at bay, and to heed legal advice aimed at achieving these ends. Thus we see a lot of "drink responsibly," "21 means 21," and other admonishments in booze ads. (Perhaps, as much as anything else, this is to preempt any suggestion that these companies are using their access to mainstream media to market to underage audiences – access they very understandably do not want taken away.)

In the digital age, the latest (and not altogether surprising) manifestation of this cautiousness comes in the form of major brewers placing "age-verification" controls on their Web sites, "restricting" access to only those over the legal drinking-age threshold. Before you can learn, for example, exactly how Coors Light manages to taste so damn cold, or how Miller Lite is able to harness the power of triple-hops brewing, you'll have to either input a date of birth or click a button affirming you are indeed physically, emotionally and (as far as your driver's license is concerned, anyway) otherwise mature enough to be subjected to this information.

It is an utter joke.

Let's start with the easy stuff. First, any fool can tell you there is absolutely nothing to prevent a 14-year-old from fabricating an over-21 birth date, or from clicking "yes, I'm old enough to drink." This is the equivalent of bartenders and shopkeepers simply asking customers their age. It's stupid and ineffective, and you might as well not bother wasting the time. (Ask the 17-and-under crowd how many of them have been foiled by age controls at porn sites and you'll get an idea of how fail-safe this technique is.)

Next, there's the curious matter of why underage Web surfers must necessarily be kept away from this material in the first place. Alcohol companies are already well aware that their advertisements – highly effective, otherwise they wouldn't sink so much cash into them – are consistently viewed by underage audiences. This is no great revelation, and in general society and governments tolerate this on the basis that simply seeing a booze ad isn't going to put the booze in a kid's hand. It might plant the desire in his mind, but last anyone checked, it's illegal for a minor to possess or consume alcohol, not to simply wish that he could.

Why is it that, in the online sphere, beer/wine/liquor makers are suddenly so eager to keep their material away from kids? They certainly don't take the same care when it comes to billboards, or sports stadiums. (One obvious reason is that the Internet is uniquely capable of letting you pay lip service to responsibility while actually doing nothing material or reliable to further it.)

While it is usually the bigger companies who go to the greatest such cover-your-legal-ass lengths (for they have not only the most attractive bank accounts for a litigant to target, but also the armies of lawyers to conceive these measures), we do see the occasional smaller player – craft brewer, since we're interested in beer here – who feels compelled to "verify" visitors' eligibility to look at beer info on a computer screen. Sierra Nevada does it. Sam Adams does it. New Belgium, too. (OK, these are all fairly large participants on the craft scene, big enough to exhibit a dash of corporatism. But even some tiny, brand-spanking-new outfits will ask if their visitors are over 21.)

In this context, it was only partly out of left field when I encountered the most egregious example of audience-filtering I've yet seen. It was the message I received after following New Belgium on Twitter (presumably sent to all new followers):

Can you look at this request and not find it laughably absurd? New Belgium, like most Twitter users, allows their "tweets" to be viewed in the open, by the public – not just by followers or users logged in to the Twitter service. What would New Belgium do to a follower who would be dense enough to reply with an under-21 birth date? Block them? Fine, that person can simply log out of Twitter and view all tweets on NB's Twitter page, just like anyone else can. By publishing to a third-party service, and by not protecting their tweets, NB gives up the means to directly control who does and doesn't view them.

I'll acknowledge what I think would be a likely counterargument from defenders of these practices: "Unlike traditional advertising, Web sites and Twitter provide consumers with a more interactive experience with the brand, and one wherein brands may even be actively soliciting contact with the consumer. Alcohol producers want to make sure that underage persons aren't interacting with the company on this deeper, potentially more dangerous level. And no matter what else, we don't want to help create additional demand for alcohol among the underage set."

Fair enough. Though this does nothing to answer the charge that making users input a birth date is a spectacularly ineffective (and transparently so, if you ask any rational person) means of keeping the kiddies away from the booze peddlers' nefarious influence. Nor does this position have anything to say about New Belgium's chuckle-worthy attempt to imply that one needs NB's permission to view NB tweets. And if brewers – especially the big guys – really wanted to do everything possible to curb demand among the underage ... well, they'd eliminate their ubiquitous marketing efforts altogether.

It's probably too much to ask that the people who actually come in contact with the most proximate symptoms of a minor's thirst for alcohol – the parents, the kid himself, the people who ultimately sell alcohol to consumers – be left in charge of making sure beer doesn't wind up in the wrong hands. Way too much, right?

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails