Cheers! It's Happy Hour in Cyberspace Cheers! It's Happy Hour in Cyberspace


The Wall Street Journal

Call it a cyberbouncer: ``You must be 21 or older'' to visit Jim Beam Brands' new ``virtual bar'' on the Internet, a computer icon warns Internet users.

But it's all on the honor system, so even the underaged can freely join the party. By accessing the cartoon saloon plastered with DeKuyper liqueur posters, they can call up DeKuyper drink recipes and even scrawl graffiti on the virtual bathroom walls.

As the first few liquor brands join other major advertisers on-line -- and with tobacco companies mulling the idea -- questions arise. Do the customary restrictions on such advertising apply in cyberspace? And if new regulations are drafted, can they be enforced, given the freewheeling, global nature of the Internet?

While Philip Morris declines to discuss what plans, if any, it has for advertising cigarettes on the Internet, a New York promotion-marketing firm has developed an Internet site that would permit users to download old TV commercials for Philip Morris's Marlboro cigarettes, among other things. But the site's developer, Joel Cohen, executive vice president of Heller & Cohen, concedes that the ban on broadcast tobacco ads may keep Philip Morris from using the Internet even if it isn't restricted by the government.

Cigarette advertising was barred from television and radio in 1970. Spirits makers -- though not beer marketers -- have voluntarily abstained from advertising on radio and TV since the early days of broadcasting. All categories are permitted to advertise in magazines.

The dominant question today for liquor and tobacco advertisers: Is cyberspace more like television or magazines -- or so different that it requires rewriting existing regulations?

For the moment, the new on-line media are wide open to advertisers. The Federal Trade Commission has so far brought just one consumer-protection suit against an on-line advertiser (a credit-repair concern). The Federal Communications Commission doesn't have jurisdiction over the Internet or commercial on-line services such as Prodigy, America Online and CompuServe, which aren't considered common carriers. The issue is ``unsettled as far as we know,'' says Walker Merryman, a spokesman for the Tobacco Institute, the industry's trade association.

Indeed, given the still-murky regulatory waters, liquor and tobacco makers have been skittish about joining the rush by other advertisers to jump on-line -- typically by displaying ``pages,'' or sites, either on the commercial services or on the Internet's World Wide Web multimedia service.

``On the Net there are no real rules,'' says Deborah Young, a spokeswoman for CompuServe. ``But we impose our own set of guidelines that are from the radio and television model. It would be highly unlikely that we would bring on an advertiser like Philip Morris, for instance.'' Prodigy abides by its own set of advertising regulations and accepts no cigarette advertising.

But such guidelines are all but meaningless. Within the next few months, all the commercial services will be providing subscribers with access to the Internet, where no such strictures apply and where, presumably, Philip Morris is free to place an ad.

Right now, DeKuyper's DOT COM virtual bar reaches thousands of homes through the Internet's World Wide Web. Beer marketers such as Philip Morris's Miller Brewing unit and Coors's Zima brand are also on the Web.

Before Jim Beam opened its DeKuyper bar in January, company officials considered the liquor industry's voluntary avoidance of TV advertising. But they decided that the bar, which can be reached through Time Warner's Vibe magazine site on the Web, is more akin to an electronic magazine ad. And, of course, liquor ads are permitted in magazines.

``The bar is less about selling and more about the environment where you drink DeKuyper,'' says Tom McEnery, account supervisor at Fallon McElligott, the Minneapolis agency that helped create the virtual bar.

Later this spring, Goldschlager, one of the fastest-growing liqueur brands in the U.S., is expected to place an ad on Spin magazine's site on America Online. Goldschlager has developed a screen saver that users can download to create a permanent Goldschlager billboard for their computer screens. Officials at Grand Metropolitan's Paddington unit, importers of Goldschlager, won't elaborate beyond that; nor will they comment on the issue of advertising regulation on the Internet.

The liquor industry has yet to draft any guidelines on how to use new on-line media. In fact, the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. just revised its general advertising practices code without mentioning on-line ads.

If liquor advertisers have been hesitant to venture into cyberspace, tobacco companies have been downright timid. Under the 1970 law, cigarette advertising is barred on any electronic medium under the FCC's jurisdiction. Because that includes the telephone lines, tobacco marketers have assumed that creating a smokers' room on a computer bulletin board, say, would be off limits. But theoretically, at least, there is nothing to stop them from placing an ad on the Internet. Indeed, most cigarette marketers have at this point registered for Internet ``addresses'' that include their corporate identification.


AP-WS-03-15-95 0853EST

This material is copyrighted and may not be republished without permission of the originating newspaper or wire service. NewsHound is a service of the San Jose Mercury News. For more information call 1-800-818-NEWS.