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Anheuser-Busch pulls promotions at some colleges

Tuesday, August 25, 2009 | 2:52 p.m. CDT; updated 8:41 a.m. CDT, Thursday, September 3, 2009

MILWAUKEE — Anheuser-Busch InBev is dropping its "Fan Cans" promotions from communities around the country where colleges have complained that the effort — which sells cans of Bud Light in school colors — promotes underage drinking and infringes on trademarks.

The Federal Trade Commission has discussed the issue with the brewer, both the agency and the St. Louis-based brewer said. Regulators are concerned that cans will be marketed to fans under the legal drinking age of 21, said Janet Evans, a senior attorney at the FTC responsible for alcohol marketing issues.

The industry's regulations require at least 70 percent of an advertisement's audience to be above 21, and Evans said that doesn't happen on college campuses.

"When you've got a college campus audience you've got a very large number of persons who are below the legal drinking age there, and in addition, you've got a population that engages almost exclusively in binge drinking," she said.

She said the FTC could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation, though she did say she was certain Anheuser-Busch would not repeat this effort in the future.

Anheuser-Busch told the FTC the cans would be sold through retailers where purchasers must be 21 or older, said Carol Clark, Anheuser-Busch vice president for corporate social responsibility.

Still, the company said it is listening to the complaints.

"Certain cans are not being made available in communities where organizations asked us not to offer them," Clark said in a statement.

The nation's largest brewer started the program earlier this month for its flagship Bud Light brand, where sales have been suffering amid the recession. The brand — the nation's biggest — could see its first sales decline in 27 years, according to industry estimates.

The "Fan Can" program puts school colors on Bud Light cans and was launched to coincide with the start of football season — a popular time to drink beer. Anheuser-Busch, which was bought by Belgium-based InBev last year, said the cans have no college logos, names or other identifiers — just 27 color combinations.

The program is nationwide, where the brewer's wholesalers choose to participate. The company estimates half of its wholesalers are participating.

It's also unclear how many schools are objecting. Some 25 colleges represented by Collegiate Licensing Co. have sent the brewer formal letters asking it to stop the program at their campuses, according to the company, which represents around 200 colleges and universities.

The company would not name specific schools, but published reports cited the University of Colorado and the University of Michigan as among the objectors. Messages left at those campuses were not immediately returned Tuesday.

Boston College also objected, spokesman Jack Dunn said. He said the school sent letters objecting to the use of its maroon and gold coloring to the brewer on its own and through its athletic conference.

The school cited trademark infringement but is mainly concerned about the message the program sends about drinking, he said, and worries drinkers could think the university is involved in the effort.

"We think it's an ill-conceived and inappropriate campaign that runs counter to our collective efforts to combat underage drinking," he said.

Anheuser-Busch told Boston College in a letter earlier this month it stands by its rights to market its product using colors associated with the school.

"Nonetheless, in order to avoid a dispute over the concerns raised by your letter, Anheuser-Busch has decided not to proceed with Fan Cans in such color combinations in your community at this time," according to a copy of the letter the school gave to the press.

In some cases, such as at the University of Wisconsin, the campaign hadn't even made it near campus yet, but the schools didn't want to wait to tell Anheuser-Busch to drop the program.

"If you don't protect your trademarks, you eventually lose them, so we felt it was important to at least communicate to them that we didn't think it was an appropriate tact," said Vince Sweeney, vice chancellor for university relations at University of Wisconsin.

He said the school in Madison, Wis., received a letter from Anheuser-Busch this week saying it would stop selling the red-and-white cans in the area.

Texas A&M University also received such a letter after sending one of its own. Spokesman Jason Cook said their concern was that people would think the school had licensed the maroon-and-white cans of beer.

A dozen schools represented by Licensing Resource Group, including Mississippi State, have either sent letters to the brewer or local distributors asking that the program be ceased in their areas.

Evans, the FTC attorney, said it is difficult to promote drinking on campuses responsibly and this effort is not the way to do it.

"We really wouldn't want them to do this again," she said.

 


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