Surprising sponsor of social norms: brewing industry

by Kaitlin Bell | 5/15/02 5:00am

In what some have called a conflict of interest and others have called socially-responsible programming, several major U.S. brewing companies have been funding and organizing alcohol social norms campaigns on college campuses over the past several years.

The brewers maintain that they are genuinely committed to curbing unhealthy drinking habits and cite the social norms approach as one of the most effective methods. Health administrators at schools around the country, however, are sharply divided over whether accepting money from the brewing industry strengthens or undermines the goal of their campaigns.

Beer companies, including Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors, have given colleges such as the University of Virginia and Georgetown grants to develop social norms campaigns. In other cases, the brewers have worked directly with colleges to develop and promote such campaigns or lent their support indirectly through non-profit organizations that in turn fund programs to combat binge drinking on college campuses.

Representatives from Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors said that lending financial and institutional support to such programs is not motivated by the need to project a good image or financial incentives like tax breaks. Rather, they say, they are fulfilling their moral obligations.

"This is us being a good corporate citizen," said Suzanne Gruenstein, a representative from Anheuser-Busch. "Nobody benefits when our products are abused. They are intended to be consumed responsibly by adults."

"It's part of our corporate citizenship to be involved in programs that look at reckless drinking on college campuses. We don't feel public pressure," manager of partnership programs at Coors Gene Giron said.

Both Gruenstein and Giron emphasized that Anheuser-Busch and Coors are "family companies" with a long tradition of guarding against unhealthy drinking.

But critics suspect brewers may have ulterior motives.

"Of course they value the public relations impact," Richard Keeling, M.D., the editor of the American Journal of College Health, said. "Brewing companies want to position themselves as contributing to effective strategies against drinking."

Keeling said that brewers choose to fund campaigns they don't think will be successful.

"They are very likely to put money into things that have not been shown to make major changes in consumption patterns," he said.

Although wary of providing brewing companies with free advertising through the social norms campaigns they fund, colleges that have received grants from brewers said they are free to design campaigns as they see fit.

"Industries obviously want to sell their product, but we really feel that they have been very forthright about not wanting to sell and distribute alcohol to people who are underage," said Jennifer Bauerley, the social norms marketing coordinator at the University of Virginia. She said that a major reason for accepting the $150,000 grant from Anheuser-Busch was "that it came with no strings attached."

She continued, "We are certainly not a conduit for their marketing services," saying that UVA was committed to using social norms campaigns before receiving financial offers from Anheuser-Busch.

Despite prominent alcohol-awareness social norms campaigns at Dartmouth, College health administrators said they have not yet received any such offers but that Dartmouth would reject any it did receive.

"I would be suspicious of their motives," Dartmouth's social norms director Laura Rubinstein said. "Ultimately they're a capitalist endeavor and we're educators. There is a real issue of reputation and brand recognition here."

However, brewing companies' names rarely appear on social norms posters or other campus social norms materials.

Keeling said they often try to disguise their participation in college alcohol awareness campaigns through "shadow" non-profit organizations, such as The Century Council, a non-profit organization affiliated with Anheuser-Busch, or BACCHUS and GAMMA, which are affiliated with Coors.

Brewers "don't want to have their name directly associated with alcohol awareness because that could be perceived as conflict of interest," Keeling said.

Giron acknowledged that "people can become a little cynical and will just discount these campaigns if they see an alcohol company is funding it."

Both Giron and Gruenstein denied that Coors and Anheuser-Busch are motivated to fund social norms campaigns by the possibility of tax write-offs.

On this point, even their critics concurred, deeming grants a hollow gesture.

"The money they give is a miniscule percentage of their total gross," Keeling said.

"The grants are piddling," Rubinstein said. "There's no equity in what they're offering our students in terms of money and what they're marketing to our students."