Anheuser-Busch and SABMiller, the two largest brewers on planet Earth, have been hit with a $4 billion lawsuit alleging they target their advertising at minors.
The suit, filed by a class-action lawyer from Seattle, seeks to exploit two Californian laws. The first forbids advertising intended to encourage underage drinking; the second allows individuals (as opposed to just the state's attorney general) to sue on the state's behalf for violations of California consumer protection laws.
There'll be sweaty palms around the boardroom tables of the two brewing giants as they ponder the likely impact of the action on their respective bottom lines. For the lawsuit's begetter, Steve Berman, is no boondocks lawyer but a big hitter who has successfully sued tobacco makers in thirteen states with charges that include targeting minors.
Berman says he filed the suit because a "bunch" of recent studies pinpointed a relationship between teenage beer consumption and advertising; and that Anheuser-Busch and Miller are "inflating their profits" through underage drinkers.
The suit cites the marketing to underage drinkers of so-called 'alcopops', malt beverages that are "disproportionately advertised" in youth-oriented magazines; ad blitzes on youth-targeted radio; running events at colleges; and distributing freebie toys and products "as part of their coordinated attempt to hook minors."
The brewers are attempting to dismiss the class action as "without merit". Says Anheuser-Busch vice president Francine Katz: "Our marketing and advertising is directed at adults and is placed in programming that is watched overwhelmingly by adults." She also cites a 2003 review of industry marketing activities by the Federal Trade Commission that "confirms our practices are responsible."
"Frivolous and without merit," was SABMiller's public reaction to the lawsuit, the likes of which "obfuscate the real issues".
Among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Lynne and Reed Goodwin, whose 20-year-old daughter was killed after being struck by a car driven by a drunken, underage driver.
Data sourced from: AdWeek.com; additional content by WARC staff