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Tuesday, February 18, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Brews And Babes -- Ad Strategy Losing Its Fizz, Many Say

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

It is the eve of a holiday, and the bar is filled with business suits, all in a festive mood. There is banter between the male customers and a bartender, a young woman in a provocative black dress.

She could, in fact, walk right into a television beer commercial.

Which is curious, because the talk is about whether breweries use women as sex objects to promote their product.

Some argue they do and how very wrong it is.

Then there's the contrary view, that America is bogged down in the age of zero tolerance, a society with no shortage of hot-button issues.

"The simmering society," said one man at the bar. "Always one degree below boiling, ready to roil over."

And nothing roils better these days than the brewing industry. Already fighting neo-Prohibitionists on one front, brewers now are being criticized for producing too many beer commercials that portray women as bimbos.

"All those beer commercials clogging up NFL games (and most other TV sports events) these days are blaring a graphic - and increasingly aggressive - message," says Newsday columnist Diane Werts. "Drink beer and get babes. Bodacious bikinied babes. The only kind of females who would exist on a beer-perfected planet."

The attacks have brewery executives heading in two directions. Some are taking up defensive positions. Stroh, which promotes its Old Milwaukee brand with the Swedish Bikini Team, insists that its commercial was only a spoof of oversexed commercials.

Others are scrambling for the high ground. August Busch IV, Budweiser brand manager and son of the head of Anheuser-Busch, said the brewery was moving away from "typical beer advertising" to commercials in which women "will have equal roles and be treated in an equal manner."

Says Patrick Stokes, president of Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc., "There's no doubt that today's consumer is looking for more in an ad than girls in bikinis."

To an extent, say the advertising trade journals, these sexism complaints were an outgrowth of the sexual-harassment accusations made against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas by former employee Anita Hill. Then along came an even more sensational case, the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith in Palm Beach, Fla.

For the beer business, the big blow came late last year when lawsuits were filed by five female employees of Stroh Brewing Co.'s plant in St. Paul, Minn. They blamed the company's Swedish Bikini Team commercials for the sexually abusive behavior they say they've experienced at work.

Never before has anyone tried to suggest legally that an advertisement caused bad behavior. It would be a precedent, and a legal "stretch," some lawyers say. Forty men at the Stroh plant were named in the complaints.

The suits, filed by Minneapolis lawyer Lori Peterson, allege dozens of sexist and degrading acts. In January, three more employees filed suit, bringing to eight the number of sexual-harassment complaints against Stroh in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area courts.

The lawsuits add to the pressure on the beer industry from the U.S. surgeon general and special-interest groups urging more advertising restrictions on the brewing industry - even possibly banning all television beer commercials.

They argue that these "sexist adolescent advertisements" appeal to impressionable under-age drinkers as well. It is a double salvo that has some people in the beer business hopping mad.

"Making a claim like that ignores the large body of scientific evidence and opinion research that says teenagers get most of their information about drinking from parents and classmates, not beer commercials," said Michael Roarty, executive vice president of corporate marketing and communications at Anheuser-Busch. "Our beer-brand ads promote a choice of brands among adults who buy beer. If those ads had any other effect, there should be some evidence. But the evidence says that over the past 20 years, when spending on beer ads rose dramatically, under-age drinking declined."

Nevertheless, Surgeon General Antonia Novello criticized the type of advertising that shows beer drinking as part of a sexy and glamorous life, with the implication that drinking builds confidence.

Novello called for the removal of advertising that appealed to youth, "especially ads that have music that appeals to them and anything that has cartoons."

"The only thing I can say (about bikini ads) is that they were a thing of the '80s," Busch said.

He says the consumer reaction has had an impact. "It would be stupid for us to go out and irritate people. So we listen to feedback."

Roarty added: "What's difficult for us is that we live in a sex-saturated society. It's everywhere. When it comes to advertising, it's all over - jeans, coffee, fashions, fragrances. Here we are with beer and we're being pummeled. We wonder why."

Roarty said the Swedish Bikini Team controversy was "a sensitivity we hadn't expected." And indeed, the agency that created the ad and Stroh Brewing have insisted all along that the spots are mere spoofs, meant to poke fun at typical macho beer ads.

But Peterson, the lawyer for the women Stroh employees who sued, is not amused. "They say it's a parody," Peterson said in a telephone interview. "Why is everything a joke when they're talking about women's sexuality?"

Robert Weinberg is a St. Louis consultant who has specialized in the beer industry and once was an executive with Anheuser-Busch. He said all this turmoil comes at a time when there is a "highly volatile and changing environment" in the malt-beverage industry. Which is to say, sales are flat.

"Smart brewers are looking for new agencies and new ideas," he said. "I personally think that the (Stroh's bikini) ads are offensive. And I'm not sure they sell beer. "

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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