Beer promotion a headache for some colleges

Thursday, August 27, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 8:44 a.m. CDT, Thursday, September 3, 2009
In this image provided by Anheuser-Busch InBev, one of 27 designs for the company's promotional "Fan Cans" is shown. The company 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.

A U.S. official and some colleges are telling the brewer of Bud Light to can it.

Bud Light rolled out a marketing gimmick, "Fan Can," with the beer cans decorated with college-team colors in selected markets just as the schools — and their football teams — were gearing up for a new season.

But the campaign drew criticism from Janet Evans, a senior attorney with the Federal Trade Commission who oversees alcohol advertising, and from certain colleges because the cans could encourage underage drinking on their campuses.

"We've told them we don't ever want to see a campaign like this again," Evans said Wednesday. "We're concerned about the promotion because it's targeted to college campuses where there are a large number of binge drinkers and underage persons in the audience."

The brewer — Anheuser-Busch InBev, a Belgian-based company that bought giant U.S. brewer Anheuser-Busch last year — said the beer can campaign features 27 different color combinations.

"This is a voluntary program made available to all wholesalers nationwide, and roughly half of our wholesalers are participating," Carol Clark, Anheuser-Busch's vice president for corporate social responsibility, said in a statement.

Fan Can, she said, was "expressly timed to coincide with the beginning of the football season and baseball playoffs."

But some universities in the targeted regions, such as Boston College and the University of Colorado, argued that the colored cans infringe on their trademarks and incorrectly hinted that the colleges were endorsing the program, even though the colleges' names and logos are not on the cans.

"We did not want to give the perception that we were co-sponsoring in any way a campaign that would be geared toward underage drinking," said Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn.

He said other schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and in the Southeastern Conference, also called on the brewer to stop distributing the beer cans in school colors.

The University of Michigan, Oklahoma State, the University of Wisconsin, Iowa State University and the University of Minnesota also objected, according to published reports.

As a result, Anheuser-Busch has told those schools that complained that it would drop the program in their areas, Dunn said.

"We place great value in the relationships we've built with college administrators and campus communities," Clark said in her statement, adding that "certain cans are not being made available in communities where organizations had asked us not to offer them."

Evans noted the FTC for years has worked with the alcohol industry on boosting advertising standards and that the agency was "not saying that they were targeting underage drinkers."

But standards in sports sponsorships have lagged those for advertising in print, on television and the Internet, she said. "We think they should make this further change," Evans said. "We just think it's not a responsible decision to engage in that type of campaign."


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