Spotlight on the Alcohol Industry: Anheuser-Busch Pulls “Spykes” Amid Criticism

Anheuser-Busch, the manufacturer of Spykes, a two-ounce flavored malt beverage, decided to pull the product from the market after receiving a written warning on May 10th from 27 state Attorneys General accusing the company of violating the Beer Institute Advertising and Marketing Code. According to the Attorneys General, Spykes the drink, as well as its promotions and advertising, appeared to be especially designed to attract youth, particularly young girls.

Spykes was a two-ounce flavored malt beverage containing caffeine, ginger, guarana –and 12% alcohol. The product was available in such flavors as chocolate, mango, watermelon, and lime and was marketed as a flavor additive to beer. According to Anheuser Busch, Spykes was created for adults as a lower alcohol alternative to hard liquors. They pointed out that the market contains more than 50 products in this category in all colors and flavors, most of which are hard-liquor beverages that have a greater concentration of alcohol by volume than Spykes. However, according to one critic, Bruce Livingston, the Executive Director of The Marin Institute, “Spykes was a 12 percent alcohol depth charge – clearly designed to appeal to teenage girls in brightly colored 2 ounce containers that look like nail polish.” Richard L. Keller, MD, a coroner from Chicago added that “my concern is that they fit easily into a tuxedo jacket pocket, or purse for prom night ‘fun’.”

The Attorneys General pointed out that the product was marketed primarily on the Internet with no effective means of preventing underage visitors from entering the site. In addition, they noted that the product website included wallpapers, screensavers, instant messaging icons and ringtones that were highly attractive to teenagers. Finally, they stated that Spykes Internet ads offered “vivid” descriptions of the flavors available, but no mention that the product contained alcohol. They concluded that “The labeling for Spykes is inadequate and the content of its advertising is irresponsible, reflecting a basic disregard for consumer safety and welfare.”

In defense, Francine Katz, a spokesperson for Anheuser-Busch stated, “Those who criticize Spykes fundamentally misunderstand the behavior of many illegal underage drinkers. They drink for instant impact. The fact that Spykes are sold in two-ounce bottles and have a total alcohol content equivalent to only one-third of glass of wine makes it much less likely that illegal underage drinkers will choose Spykes as opposed to similarly-colored and similarly-flavored products that are 70 to 80 proof hard liquor.”

However, according to a statement from the Connecticut Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal, “Spykes is double trouble – alcohol and caffeine combined in large doses to create a high energy rush with the illusion of alertness when drinkers are impaired. With Spykes marketing and promotion, Anheuser-Busch belies the fight against underage drinking and its own public pitch to ‘drink responsibly.’”

The May 10th letter was signed by Attorneys General from Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Alcohol Producer Voluntarily Adopts Stricter Rules in an Effort to Reduce Underage Drinking

While state attorneys general mount a high-profile campaign to curb under-age drinking, Beam Global Spirits and Wine, manufacturers of such brands as Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark bourbon and Canadian Club whiskey, announced earlier this month that they would voluntarily adopt stricter rules to keep messages away from young people.

Beam elaborated that it would purchase print and broadcast advertisements only in outlets where at least 75 percent of the audience is above the legal drinking age. This is a more stringent standard than the current, self-imposed industry standard of 70 percent.

However, the move may be largely symbolic. Beam Global Spirits and Wine does not produce beer or flavored malt liquors – the target of most of the objections to alcohol advertising. Critics argue that beer and flavored malt beverages – often referred to as alcopops – appeal to under-age drinkers, particularly young girls, while Beam’s products appeal to primarily an older, adult audience. According to George Hacker, Director of the Alcohol Policies Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, “If Beam takes a good look at their target audience, they are not sacrificing a lot.” Mr. Hacker added that he would prefer to see Anheuser-Busch and Diageo, maker of Smirnoff-Ice, adopt the higher standard. “Their products are more deliberately targeted to young people.”

While Beam Global Spirits and Wine is volunteering to curb its advertising, it maintains that advertising does not contribute to under-age drinking. But Steven Rowe, the attorney general of Maine argued, “To say there’s no causal connection is to have your head in the sand. It’s to not recognize reality.” He told The New York Times that he and other attorneys general were “calling on industry members to follow Beam’s lead and join the effort to reduce under-age drinking.”