Truth in Alcohol Advertising

A really fun part of my day job is I get the opportunity to review copy related to underwriting spots and promotional material. Broadcasting rules and regulations, like any area of the law, are forever evolving. As you can imagine, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission, for my non-broadcast readers) can be blamed for regulating a lot of the material you see/hear, or do not see/hear, over a broadcast station.  The Commission’s regulations serve a purpose and are necessary, even when they do not make complete sense to the general public.

Recently, Heineken beer began running a series of advertisements featuring Neil Patrick Harris. See below.


In case you missed it, Neil states, “certain regulations prohibit me from taking a sip in a television commercial.” Then there is this one that is longer and is more of a web-based promotional piece showcasing the Director giving cues to Neil. The Director states, “There are rules about drinking in a commercial.” See the full version below.



Finally, the one that is running the most.



The description box below on all of the ads state, “Due to complicated broadcast regulations, Neil Patrick Harris is not allowed to drink Heineken Light.” Heineken places blame on “complicated broadcast regulations” as the reason you cannot see Neil Patrick Harris consuming his favorite adult beverage of the moment.

The Commission has a lot of rules, especially when it comes to content and advertising around children’s programming.  I’ve even been known to say a time or two, “We’d love to be able to do that, but the Commission just won’t allow it.” The ad campaign is an interesting angle to promote by not showing consumption. But, to blame it on our friends at the FCC is wrong. Quite wrong. Here, Heineken is being untruthful, at the least misleading, in their advertising by pointing the finger at the wrong cause of the regulation.

Truth. According to The Public and Broadcasting, located on the FCC’s website found HERE, “Congress has not enacted any law prohibiting broadcast advertising of any kind of alcoholic beverages, and the FCC does not have a rule or policy regulating such advertisements.” [emphasis added].

If Heineken wanted to be completely truthful in their ad campaign, they would have pointed to themselves and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as the regulator of the ad content.  They are the reason why Neil is not allowed to consume the product on camera. The Beer Institute, Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and the Wine Institute are trade groups representing their respective industries. The trade organization, the Beer Institute, is the real regulator of content in an effort to comply with FTC standards.

Each of the groups has adopted advertising and marketing codes, which highly encourages members to follow when developing advertising. You can see the full Beer Institute Advertising and Marketing Code by going HERE. While these are codes of conduct, it is not binding and is not a rule or regulation related to broadcast or enforceable by the FCC. By virtue of being a member of those trade organizations, following is highly encouraged.

These codes of conduct developed because of the FTC. As you can imagine, the Federal Trade Commission is interested in advertising that is truthful and does not unduly target underage drinkers.  This past year, they issued a report highlighting industry efforts and successes at reducing marketing to underage people.  You can read the report HERE.

So, what is the takeaway for these newer craft beer breweries popping up?  The first is this, do not believe there are FCC regulations related to how you advertise and promote your product, outside of times within children’s programming.  But, while there are not regulations on the FCC end, you do need to explore the advertising regulations related to the Federal Trade Commission and the recommendations.  Finally, if you belong to any of the trade organizations, who undoubtedly lobby for your interest, you might want to check and consider following their code of ethics.  Even though those codes have no real binding effect and are voluntary, they do serve the purpose of making sure advertisements are carefully constructed with some over arching guidelines.  It allows for some consistency that might prevent further scrutiny and eventual hard and fast rules from the FCC or Congress.

What do you think of Heineken passing the buck to the FCC?  Take part in the Comments section below and Stay Tuned In!

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