With no force of law at his disposal to stop them, President Clinton used the White House bully pulpit Saturday to denounce the distilled-spirits industry for its plan to begin running liquor ads on the nation's television and radio stations.
By abandoning a voluntary ban on broadcast advertising that dates back to the 1930s, the industry will be "exposing our children to such ads before they know how to handle alcohol or are legally allowed to do so," the president said.
"That is simply irresponsible."
Clinton praised the four major broadcast television networks for declaring that they will not accept advertisements for hard liquor. He urged the nation's 1,200 independently owned television and radio stations to follow the networks' lead.
The liquor industry had no immediate reaction to the president's sharp rebuke, except to say it anticipated no change in its plan to start airing ads in time to cash in on the upcoming Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's holiday seasons. The end of the year is traditionally a high-volume sales period for whiskey, vodka and other forms of hard liquor.
Fred Meister, president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, has stated that his industry is merely exercising its right to free speech in deciding to end the ban on airing TV and radio ads. "We will do whatever is necessary to protect our First Amendment rights," he said.
Meister said the council has developed marketing and advertising strategies designed to shield children from becoming improperly influenced by broadcast spots for liquor. Specifically, he said, the ads will not feature images or cartoons that might attract children.
But Clinton, in his first radio address since his reelection, grouped liquor makers with the nation's tobacco companies, which he accused of attempting to lure teenagers into adopting lifelong cigarette habits. By attacking both industries, the president sounded many of the family-values themes he had embraced during the campaign, particularly the right of parents to protect their children from outside negative forces.
Rahm Emanuel, a senior presidential advisor, said that "it is not insignificant" that Clinton chose such strong pro-family rhetoric in his first post-election radio speech.
"The president continues to use the bully pulpit to challenge all Americans to come together in protecting children," Emanuel said.
Clinton stressed that parents have already been given access to the V-chip and the television rating system to monitor and control what their children watch. And he vowed to "continue our efforts to help parents protect their children from the corrosive, dangerous influence of tobacco and alcohol."
In the last year alone, Clinton said, 2,200 young people between the ages of 15 and 20 were killed in alcohol-related automobile accidents. In an effort to reduce the death toll, he said, his administration last month advised states that they would lose federal highway funds if they fail to enforce a "zero-tolerance" rule making it illegal for anyone younger than 21 to drive with any amount of alcohol--no matter how small--in their bloodstream.
"Now," he said, "the American liquor industry has made a decision that will make this hard work even harder."
He said the liquor companies stopped broadcasting TV and radio advertising because "it was the right thing to do."
"You are wrong to change your policy now," the president said to the liquor companies. "This is no time to turn back. Get back on the ban. That's the best way to protect all our families."
The distillers voluntarily discontinued radio ads in 1936, and followed up with a TV ban 12 years later. It has always been a voluntary program, and Federal Communications Commission officials have no legal basis for requiring them to maintain the ban.
On Friday, after the companies announced they would begin broadcasting ads to compete with makers of beer and wine, FCC Chairman Reed Hundt said Washington had no plans to try to force them to desist.
"That is a long, long and hard road to travel," he said.
But the industry's plan has met with immediate resistance from the four major broadcast networks--NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox--all of which said they would continue to keep liquor ads off their airwaves.
But the networks' policy will affect only the national advertising carried by their affiliates across the country. It will not prevent independently owned affiliates from accepting liquor ads for local broadcast, and has no bearing on non-network television and radio outlets.
Clinton commended the four networks for their refusal to accept liquor ads. "I urge all other broadcasters to follow that example," he said.
Meanwhile, the top Republican in the Senate used the GOP's weekly radio address to declare that the GOP-controlled Congress intends to work cooperatively with the president on a number of key initiatives.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi cited welfare reform, a balanced budget and "smaller, smarter and more efficient government" as areas in which the two sides can find common ground.
"We are bridge-builders too," Lott said, borrowing Clinton's campaign promise to build a "bridge to the future."
"That's why we want to bridge the gaps and disagreements between the Senate and the House, between the two parties, and between Capitol Hill and the White House," Lott said.