Cross-posted from Appetite for Profit.
Every so often in my work at Marin Institute, we get a complaint from someone about an alcohol advertisement they’ve seen in their community they think shouldn’t be there. Most of the time, they’re right. In the role of industry watchdog, I’ve taken on the responsibility to report such complaints to the industry directly to get the ads removed as soon as possible.
However, at Marin, we have made a deliberate decision to not use the industry’s official complaint process, because as we demonstrated with our report in 2008, it’s a failure and a charade.
Instead, when it’s a spirits ad that I think is in violation of the voluntary code, I will send an email directly to Lynne Omlie, who handles such matters for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), the national trade group for the spirits industry.
Recently, we received an email (with the above photo) from a concerned mother about a huge Jose Cuervo ad on the side of a building in Seattle, right across the street from her son’s middle school. (The industry’s voluntary, self-regulation guidelines say that such ads must be at least 500 feet from a school, so this was a clear violation.)
I quickly forwarded the message to Lynne Omlie of DISCUS and copied Janet Evans, the attorney at the Federal Trade Commission who oversees alcohol advertising.
The good news is that the ad came down the very next day. According to this letter of apology, the ad placement was the result of an “oversight” by the billboard company, which, although it had conducted a survey of the area, somehow missed this middle school. OK, mistakes happen, problem solved.
But it didn’t stop there.
Instead of just taking care of the matter and apologizing for the blatant error, Lynne Omlie went out of her way to tell us that this complaint would be recorded as part of the official process, despite my requests that she not do so.
Why does this matter? Because now DISCUS gets to celebrate this incident as a wonderful “victory” of how well the complaint process is working. We complained, they took swift action, and so this must mean the system works, right? Wrong.
How long was the ad up? Who knows? How many other ads are out there also in violation of the 500 foot rule, all over the nation? Who knows? No one studies this in any regular or scientific manner, and yet, DISCUS gets to claim the system works. Here is what Lynne Omlie told our constituent who brought her complaint to us, not them:
Your complaint will be part of the Code’s next Semi-Annual Report and posted on the DISCUS website within the next few days. Your proactive action to address this advertisement will be highlighted in the placement tutorials at our October 18th-19th “Best Practices” Media Summit, attended by industry members from all sectors—DISCUS member distillers, non-member distillers, brewers and vintners, as well as their respective media placement companies and advertising agencies.
Translation? DISCUS will be using this unfortunate incident to celebrate how great their voluntary system is working. Indeed, it will become a case-study of success! They may even give themselves an award for “best practices,” they are so proud of themselves!
Here’s what I told Lynne Omlie in response via email:
Thank you Lynne, for your prompt attention to this matter. It is great to have such a swift resolution. However, I do need to reiterate my prior request to not turn this unfortunate situation to DISCUS’ advantage by publishing the complaint as a “victory” in your report.
All this does is further Marin Institute’s position that those reports are a complete charade. How can the self-regulatory system be viewed as a success when the only cases you report on are complaints like these? It is the exception, rather than the rule, to have people [like this woman] take the time and energy to contact us. Most people don’t know that’s even an option. She obviously had no idea how to complain to DISCUS or she would have done so directly.
Hardly an example of “Best Practices,” this complaint just raises the question, how many other ads are in violation that we will never even know about? Unless and until we have an independent, scientifically-sound monitoring system in place, we will never know the answer to that question. Thanks again for your speedy action. Now let’s just leave it at that.
But industry just can’t because they need to perpetuate the charade of self-regulation. Whether the issue is alcohol advertising or junk food marketing to kids, voluntary self-regulation is a failed system that only serves to further industry’s PR goals. Judging by this experience, it’s working like a charm.
A version of this post appeared originally on Marin Institute’s website.