CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Anheuser-Busch calls them “fan cans” — Bud Light cans in 26 school-color combinations designed to boost game-day sales; but federal trade officials and some college administrators say they are, at the least, cause for concern.
“This is not good at all,” said Rick Steinbacher, associate athletic director at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Although Tar Heel blue is not among the “fan can” choices shown on the Anheuser-Busch Web site, Steinbacher said the promotion is still a concern to officials at the state’s flagship university who are monitoring the matter and may decide to write the company anyway to discourage this type of marketing.
“We’re really glad they didn’t come out with a Carolina blue can, but we are still concerned and hoping they don’t come out with a second round of these,” Steinbacher said. Among the cans on the company’s Web site, where purple and yellow and maroon and white are leading in fan “votes”, are blue and white and dark blue and white, but not the lighter Tar Heel hue.
Although none of the cans bear school logos, officials at more than 25 universities, from Boston College to Texas A&M, have asked Anheuser-Busch to stop selling them in their areas, citing concerns about underage drinking and the potential for trademark infringement. The Federal Trade Commission has weighed in with similar worries.
“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,” FTC attorney Janet Evans told the media. According to alcohol industry regulations, at least 70 percent of an advertisement’s audience must be at least 21, not a likely scenario on college campuses, where more than 44 percent of those surveyed in a 2001 Harvard study reported binge drinking.
“Nearly 600,000 students between the ages of 18 to 24 are injured annually because of alcohol … and 97,000 are the victims of alcohol-related sexual assault,” wrote Dr. Dan Ireland, executive director of the American Council on Alcohol Problems (ACAP), in a letter to Anheuser-Busch and to colleges urging them to contact the company to protest. ACAP helped spearhead the campaign to raise the legal drinking age to 21.
“Contact the colleges of your state,” Ireland wrote. “They are in business for our youth — for their good, their safety, their future. Beer is not a part of the equation.”
The Christian Action League of North Carolina is joining ACAP’s effort to get the word out.
“This ‘Team Pride’ promotion that encourages students to ‘show your true colors’ on game-day should certainly be on the radar of college administrators and parents of underage students alike,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, CAL executive director. “We urge institutions of higher learning to file formal complaints.”
Although Anheuser-Busch won’t divulge which universities have complained, Carol Clark, vice president of Corporate Social Responsibility, said “certain cans are not being made available in communities where organizations had asked us not to offer them.”
Steinbacher’s concerns aside, the issue doesn’t seem to have attracted much attention at major North Carolina universities.
Matt Shipman, with N.C. State University News Services, said if the cans are being marketed in the vicinity of N.C. State, “we haven’t seen or heard anything about it yet.” Red and white is among the fan can color combinations. In fact, it’s the one rejected by University of Nebraska-Lincoln officials who protested the promotion.
At East Carolina, where purple and gold cans are already showing up, John Durham, executive director of University Communications, said, “We have not complained to Anheuser-Busch about its beer cans, and we do not intend to try to interfere with any company’s marketing decisions, so long as they are not infringing on our name or trademarks.”
He said East Carolina “works very hard to educate our students about personal safety and responsibility, including responsible drinking.”
Steve Shutt, assistant athletic director/media relations at Wake Forest University, said WFU had been in contact with the local Anheuser-Busch representatives and that “we understand that there will not be any black and gold Fan Cans in the Winston-Salem market.”
Officials at Duke University seemed unaware of the fan can issue when contacted this week and did not respond to specific questions. As a signer of the Amethyst Initiative, Duke University President Richard Brodhead has made it known that he does not support 21 as the legal drinking age.
As for the UNC system, Joni Worthington, vice president of communications, said “oversight of intercollegiate athletics is expressly delegated to the chancellors of each UNC campus” and that she had not heard of concerns.
The Collegiate Licensing Company, which represents some 200 colleges and universities on branding issues, did hear concerns and sent a letter to Anheuser-Busch about their worries that “the use of school colors may cause confusion in the consumer marketplace regarding affiliation, endorsement or sponsorship.”
A CLC spokesman said earlier this week that 25 schools had filed formal complaints with Anheuser-Busch; the organization declined to discuss specific numbers of complaints on Thursday. Another dozen schools represented by Licensing Resource Group also reported contacting the brewer or local beer distributors. And, according to an article in Friday’s The State newspaper, the Atlantic Coast Conference wrote Anheuser-Busch to request that the company reconsider its marketing scheme.
Though names of institutions that have complained are not being released, the following have been confirmed via media reports: Southern Methodist University, University of Colorado, University of Michigan, Boston College, University of Wisconsin, Texas A&M University, Mississippi State University, University of Minnesota, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Iowa State University, University of Iowa, Oklahoma State University, University of Oklahoma, Stony Brook University and Purdue University.
Take Christian Action: To let your voice be heard, send a letter to Anheuser-Busch Inc., One Busch Place, St. Louis, MO 63118. Moreover, if you have a child in College, call the administrative office of the University or College where he/she attends and ask the administration to complain to Anheuser Busch about this egregious marketing scheme.