REPRESENTATIVE JOE KENNEDY IS a man with a mission. “I’ve seen in my own family the dangers of drug abuse,” he says, bounding down the Capitol steps after a vote. “I lost one of my younger brothers [to a drug overdose], I know how dangerous drugs are. I vote $11 billion a year to fight the drug war, yet alcohol kills three times as many people in the U.S. as all other drugs combined. If my kids are going to be exposed to tens of thousands of ads telling them how good these products are, then there should be some warning of what the downside is.”
And so the Boston Congressman, at 38 the only Kennedy of his generation in national office, is sponsoring a bill aimed at robbing beer, wine, and liquor of much of their appeal. He would require ads to carry warnings (spoken warnings on TV) that drinking can lead to birth defects, addiction, and worse. And while his Sensible Advertising and Family Education Act has sparked incredulity within the industry — “You’ve got to wonder if he has any remembrance of where his money comes from,” says one executive, recalling family patriarch Joe Kennedy’s alleged connection to bootlegging in the Twenties — Kennedy himself views it as a natural extension of his father Bobby’s effort to put warning labels on tobacco products.
Washington insiders give Kennedy’s S.A.F.E. Act, as it’s called, little chance of passage anytime soon, even though one of its Senate sponsors is Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina Republican who led the 1988 fight to put alcohol warnings on bottles and cans. Yet no one sees Kennedy as some quixotic crusader. On the contrary, he’s a bellwether for the age.
He and millions like him — baby-boomers whose focus has turned to health and children — have engineered a basic shift in the national consciousness. After the licentiousness of the Seventies and the materialism of the Eighties, the generation that coined the slogan “If it feels good, do it!” has concluded in middle age that if it feels good, it must be bad for you. With this realization has come a neo-prohibitionist impulse that militates against anything perceived as harmful, be it cigarettes, beer, cocaine, or cholesterol. As Allison Cohen, a consumer specialist at Ally & Gargano in New York City, puts it, “We’re in a just-say-no mode.”
The trend she is describing is called “non-ism” — nonsmoking, nondrinking, nonfattening — and it’s having a big impact on the food and beverage industry. To many, cigarettes are already beyond the pale. With consumers increasingly saying no to alcohol and fat as well, companies on all sides of the business — beer, liquor, soft drinks, packaged foods, fast food — are revamping their offerings and their image in the attempt to position themselves as merchants of virtue. But the same attitudes that pose a threat to beer and liquor sales promise a bonanza for food companies that can deliver “good for you” products, eliminating fat without sacrificing taste.
TREND WATCHERS SEE AT LEAST two forces at work: the emergence of health as a lifestyle, and a new-found focus on kids. Good health used to be taken for granted by all but the aged and the infirm; now, according to Daniel Yankelovich’s DYG market-research firm in Elmsford, New York, Americans of all stripes rank it among the things they value most. They’ve broadened it to include such issues as emotional well-being, stress reduction, nurturing relationships, and a feeling of achievement, and they’re seeking benefits that are increasingly long-term — not just a runner’s high or a slender figure, but also a stronger heart, cleaner arteries, a longer and happier life. What started in the Seventies as a fitness fad has mushroomed into an all-encompassing concern that touches on an incredible range of anxieties, from the fat in an ice-cream cone to the depletion of the ozone layer.
Most people can’t do much about the ozone layer, but they can cut down on ice cream. What they lose in oral gratification, they gain in moral stature. “To some people, health becomes abstinence,” says Judith Langer, a market researcher in New York City. “And what’s being done for health can be taken to mean virtue.” But having taken control of their own bodies, they typically find it hard not to extrapolate to other people’s. “It’s part of staying psyched,” Langer explains. “It’s not easy to get up at five-thirty every morning to go running. People who do it become very prudish about it, and very judgmental about people who don’t. People are going to choose foods and beverages the way they choose things for health.”
At least two forces are at work: the emergence of health as a lifestyle and a new-found focus on kids.
The other factor, a focus on children, is closely tied to health. “The baby-boomers have gone through enlightenment,” says Leo Shapiro, a market researcher in Chicago, referring to the surge in self-development seminars, yoga retreats, and evangelical telethons that began about a decade and a half ago. “Now they’re looking at their children and they’re really concerned.” This has fueled campaigns like Partnership for a Drug-Free America, a pro bono effort by advertising agencies to prevent youngsters from trying illicit drugs. But as drug use has dropped (from 38% of high school seniors in 1979 to 20% in 1989, according to the University of Michigan’s annual survey), teenage drinking has emerged as a more worrisome problem. Cigarette smoking, too, has come under increasingly strident attack: Responding to pressure from anti-smoking activists, convenience stores are more often carding minors in the 44 states where such sales are illegal, and Iowa recently made it a crime for anyone under 18 to smoke.
Ultimately both concerns, health and children, stem from the boomers’ realization that they are no longer young. “Two things are happening,” says Shapiro. “They’re developing a sense of their own mortality, and they’re developing a sense that their immortality depends on their children.” This makes the just-say-no mentality a very deep-rooted trend, since mortality is so fundamental, and a very broad-based one, since it transcends economic and ideological barriers. “That’s why it’s going to be so powerful,” declares Washington economist Neil Howe. Some may think it strange that the Woodstock generation should turn puritanical in middle age, but Howe — the co-author of Generations, a book that provides a psychographic outline of American history — considers it very much in character. “Every time you see a generation of narcissists in their 30s, you find a generation of moralists in their 50s,” he says. “The pattern of attitudes with generations like the boomers is strikingly consistent.”
What’s happened is that now the boomers are taking over the system. “As long as they can redefine institutions and infuse them with their values, they will enforce them with a zeal that was unknown to their elders,” Howe says. To him they recall an earlier generation of idealists, one that came of age in the 1890s in a blaze of labor riots, agrarian uprisings, muckraking journalism, pioneering feminism, and evangelical fervor. This generation, too, showed its sober side after reaching maturity. Meat sales fell after Upton Sinclair came out with The Jungle in 1906; vegetarianism came into vogue. Heroin, opium, and cocaine, common and legal at the turn of the century, began to wane in popularity a few years later — as did alcohol. By 1920, middle-age crusaders had succeeded in outlawing narcotics, establishing vice squads to squelch pornography, and instituting Prohibition. “What were people worried about?” Howe asks. “Keeping alcohol away from children — in fact, keeping the licentious use of anything away from family life.”
Once again Washington is a focus of operations. Even as Joe Kennedy is promoting his S.A.F.E. Act in the House, Ted Kennedy is pushing legislation in the Senate that would allow local restrictions on cigarette advertising, set up an anti-smoking program in the Public Health Service, and expand the warning label and put it on the front of the cigarette package. Outside Congress, the non-ist agenda is being promoted by a variety of policymakers both in and out of government — at the Education Department, the Transportation Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and elsewhere.
DAVID KESSLER, the Food and Drug Administration’s new chief, became the Eliot Ness of non-ism when he had federal marshals seize some 2,500 cases of Procter & Gamble’s Citrus Hill Fresh Choice orange juice because it was actually made from concentrate. His readiness to do battle on the issue seems to have had a ripple effect at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which after years of somnolence is finally playing watchdog with beer companies. The bureau’s turnabout in July on the PowerMaster name for G. Heileman’s new malt liquor after strong protests from black leaders (see “Selling Sin to Blacks” below) came less than two months after the BATF’s unprecedented threat to take Adolph Coors Co. to court over the Coors Light slogan, “It won’t slow you down.” For two years the agency had complained that the slogan was false, but the company paid no heed until threatened with a restraining order against using the slogan. “You can say we just woke up, but I think of it more as a gradual evolution,” says Stephen Higgins, BATF director since 1983. “For the future, I think you’ll see more actions like this.”
Now the bureaucracy seems poised for an assault on underage drinking. The federal “drug czar,” Bob Martinez, has started speaking out on the problem. The National Commission on Drug-Free Schools, set up by Congress in 1988, held hearings at which the major issue was not cocaine or marijuana but alcohol. Surgeon General Antonia Novello has put together an interagency task force with the BATF and the Federal Trade Commission to look into the marketing of alcohol to young people.
Concern has been building since 1986, when the Transportation Department forced the legal drinking age to 21 by threatening to withhold highway funds from states that failed to comply. More recently, the Education Department pressured Students Against Driving Drunk to sever its links with Anheuser-Busch, which contributed nearly half its budget, and condemned its “contract for life” on the grounds that it sends a mixed message about alcohol. The contract, which obligates teenagers to call home for a ride if they’ve been drinking, was deemed inconsistent with the department’s strict “no use” policy, which says they shouldn’t have been drinking in the first place. “These are people who believe that zero tolerance is better than trying to save a life,” says Stephen Lambright, Anheuser-Busch VP for government affairs and former board member of SADD.
“People are going to choose foods and beverages the way they choose things for health care.”
At the center of the regulatory and legislative web is the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a private, nonprofit organization headed by microbiologist Michael Jacobson. Founded 20 years ago by Jacobson, who had been investigating food additives for Ralph Nader, and two other scientists, CSPI has emerged as the guiding light of non-ist Washington. It joined Joe Kennedy’s alliance with Senator Thurmond and led the successful effort to raise the excise tax on alcohol last year. Patricia Taylor, chief of CSPI’s alcohol policies project, helped put together a coalition of some 60 organizations (including the National PTA, the American Medical Association, and the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention) to support the S.A.F.E. Act. When David Kessler announced in June that the FDA was going after misleading fat-free claims for foods, it was in a speech to CSPI.
Advertising is one of CSPI’s major targets: Over the years, the group has blown the whistle on claims that coffee soothes you, that beef gives you strength, that Rice Krispies give you energy. It’s ready to do the same with alcohol. “Advertising provides the story of alcohol’s place in our society,” says Jacobson. “The message is that to have a happy, successful life filled with fun-loving, sexy people, you have to drink. But the companies have a problem, which is that alcohol is inherently dangerous. Nobody’s in favor of prohibition, but we need to explain that you can have a happy life without alcohol, or with a minimum of alcohol.” And tobacco? “Tobacco advertising may well be outlawed over the next ten years.”
Food is another matter. Even Jacobson agrees that the occasional hot dog won’t kill you: “It’s more a question of moderation than of prohibition, and that’s much harder to deal with for some people.” But with products like shortening and mayonnaise losing ground because of health concerns, the food industry is looking beyond moderation for an answer. “We envision the development of products that I would call therapeutic foods,” says Procter & Gamble Chairman Edwin Artzt. “The old days of as-long-as-it-tastes-good-it’ll-sell are gone. Increasingly, people are going to choose foods and beverages the way they choose the things they buy for health care.”
THE PARADOX is that while consumers have been grabbing up low-fat, low-cholesterol products, the same people who eat salad for lunch and fish for dinner often choose a hot fudge sundae for dessert. “The strategy consumers have taken is not to waste their calories,” explains consultant Leo Shapiro. “People spend their calorie allowance very carefully to get the maximum pleasure out of it. The whole game now is sort of like snatching pleasure from the jaws of death — ‘What’s the most sweetness I can get with the least amount of sugar?’” This means that old-fashioned, middle-of-the-road products like ordinary ice cream are being squeezed by low-cal frozen yogurts on one side and extra-luscious, super-premium ice creams on the other.
Food executives are well aware that they can’t sacrifice taste to create a good-for-you product. What consumers really want, it seems, is virtue and delight in the same package. “If you quiz the American public, they all say, ‘Yes, I want to diet,’ and it’s all baloney,” says David Braff, a New York City marketing consultant. “They’ll do it as long as they don’t have to give up anything.” Hence the proliferation of low-fat foods that promise full-fat taste, often with the suffix “free” on their names to suggest liberation.
Anheuser-Busch encourages bartenders to put drunks in taxis; the local distributor picks up the tab.
As Shapiro points out, this is creating a reversal of values in the food industry: Substances once prized for their richness (egg yolks, butterfat) are coming to be regarded with suspicion, while foods formerly considered marginal (egg whites, skim milk) have become the basis for new, high-tech, good-for-you products. Chicago, once hog butcher for the world, has become its egg-white microparticulator, its ground-beef-and-carrageenan emulsifier, its cellulose gelatinator. Kraft General Foods in suburban Glenview, for example, makes products like Sealtest Free nonfat frozen desserts, Entenmann’s fat-free and cholesterol-free baked goods, and Kraft Free nonfat salad dressings and mayonnaise with “common, natural” ingredients like egg whites, skim milk, cellulose gel, and various gums. Meanwhile, the search for a truly satisfying fat substitute continues. “In another age, it was making gold out of lead,” observes Braff.
Some half dozen food and chemical conglomerates — Atlantic Richfield, Monsanto, PepsiCo, Philip Morris, Procter & Gamble, Britain’s Tate & Lyle — are engaged in the contest. But as Monsanto’s NutraSweet Co. has demonstrated with Simplesse, the protein-based fat substitute it introduced in early 1990, the prize is not easily won. The Simple Pleasures frozen dessert NutraSweet rolled out to showcase Simplesse has met with limited acceptance, and the FDA has only just approved it for use in other products. Even so, says NutraSweet R&D chief Michael Losee, “It’s a fun area to work in. You can get up in the morning and feel good about what you’re doing.”
Few people are saying that these days in the alcohol industry, where repeated assaults from Washington have created something of a bunker mentality. “People talk about neo-prohibitionism, but I’d just as soon we dropped the ‘neo,’” declares Stephen Lambright, a tall, burly man with a shock of snow-white hair, as he takes in the broad sweep of the Mississippi from a top-floor conference room at Anheuser-Busch’s St. Louis headquarters. “I think there are people out there who are flat-out prohibitionists. As soon as they achieve one goal they move to the next one, and they won’t be happy until the entire beer, wine, and spirits industry is boarded up.”
For Anheuser-Busch, of course, it wouldn’t be the first time. The company rode out the Twenties selling ginger ale, root beer, and Bevo, a nonalcohol brew it had started developing in 1906 as a hedge against Prohibition. Early last year, after failing with LA, a low-alcohol beer that appealed to neither drinkers nor nondrinkers, Anheuser-Busch returned to the non-alcohol beer category with O’Doul’s. It was a smart move: O’Doul’s has exceeded expectations, and together with Sharp’s, an even more successful brew introduced a little earlier by Miller, it has caused non-alcohol beer sales to almost double.
But the primary thrust of the two giant breweries, which own 65% of the U.S. beer market between them and eight of the top ten brands, has been to disarm their critics by behaving like good corporate citizens. Anheuser-Busch’s “Know when to say when” campaign is a full-fledged marketing effort that uses print and broadcast ads, celebrity endorsements, even point-of-purchase promotions in bars to combat drunken driving and underage drinking. Although its $15 million budget is a small fraction of the $459 million Anheuser-Busch spent on advertising last year, the company says it enjoys 76% awareness among beer drinkers and makes contributions that aren’t reflected in dollars. One program encourages bartenders to provide free O’Doul’s or soft drinks to patrons who intend to drive home; failing that, another encourages them to put drunks in taxis, with the local distributor picking up the tab. Officials maintain that this is really just a formalization of policies responsible tavern owners have always followed. “My dad was a bartender in St. Louis for 40 years,” says Joe Castellano, the vice president who runs the company’s moderation efforts. “He knew his clientele and took care of them.”
Miller’s “Think when you drink” campaign, while not as extensive or as sophisticated as Anheuser-Busch’s efforts, contains many of the same elements. But unlike A-B, which strives not to sound preachy, Miller aims some of its messages squarely at underage drinkers — for example, billboards in places like Daytona Beach, Florida, that show a mug of beer with an ID card and say, “Here’s looking at yours, kid.” Miller is also a big supporter of National Collegiate Alcohol Awareness Week, a seven-year-old consciousness-raising program on some 3,000 campuses. Activities range from the conventional — lectures, poster contests, wrecked car exhibits — to the innovative: Last year, campus police at Virginia Tech stopped cars and handed out pamphlets explaining state drinking laws to startled but attentive motorists.
NONE OF THIS impresses critics. Indeed, despite their efforts to promote beer as the “beverage of moderation” — a mantra that recalls temperance-era campaigns intended to ward off Prohibition — beer companies are increasingly having to explain how their product differs from illicit drugs. The root of the problem seems generational: “My generation was condemned because they took cocaine or smoked marijuana,” says Congressman Kennedy. “And there’s this older generation that’s addicting a hell of a lot of people to something they claim doesn’t have to be controlled simply because they say it’s legal. You’ll watch a beer ad, and the next ad will have an egg frying on the sidewalk saying this is your brain if you take drugs. What’s going on here? This doesn’t make any sense.”
The next issue, a researcher predicts: the automobile. “Cars are the biggest killer of all . . . “
Most experts maintain that neither the preoccupation with health nor the just-say-no mentality will last forever. The nightly news breeds a sense of futility that may bring a backlash: Apples may contain pesticides, seafood can be laced with PCBs. “Is anything healthy?” asks Judith Langer. “And if nothing is, why not just do what you feel like doing?”And while society may be moving toward zero tolerance of drugs, the chances of its actually getting there are slim. “If this is like the last time, we can expect the war to be waged with rising hysteria,” says Neil Howe, recalling Prohibition. “But ultimately it will become less of an issue.” By then, Howe predicts, consumption will have dropped, society will have righted itself, and some new issue will have emerged.
Yet Derrick de Kerckhove, director of the McLuhan Program at the University of Toronto, thinks we’re witnessing the first step in a much more fundamental transformation. To him, the current wave of non-ism is more than just another outbreak of puritanism, like Prohibition. He sees it as closing a loop that began four centuries ago.
Puritanism in the modern sense dates from the Renaissance, when the invention of printing encouraged people to develop their mental powers while denying their bodily appetites. The spread of reading, de Kerckhove notes, coincided with the introduction of tobacco, which dulls the senses while focusing the mind. But where the old puritanism was anti-body, the new version — beginning in the late Sixties with restrictions against tobacco because of its link to cancer — is vehemently pro-body. Now reading is in decline, while computers and telecommunications are expanding our sensory reach and fostering an ecological sense of the body that didn’t exist until now. “We’re defending the body against the invasive character of smoking, drugs, cholesterol, alcohol,” he says. “We don’t want to be invaded — but it’s the body that’s pure this time.”
THE NEXT ISSUE, de Kerckhove predicts, will be the automobile. “This is the cause that doesn’t dare speak its name, because it threatens the entire economic sphere of North America,” he says. “But we’re going to recognize that cars are ruining the lungs of the earth. They’re the biggest killer of all — the biggest killer in fact, and the biggest killer in metaphor.”
Once again, Kennedy is there. This April he introduced a bill that would require the states to use 3% of their federal highway trust funds on bicycle paths and walkways — a move he argues would cut both air pollution and traffic congestion. “If you ride a bike to work, you help out your country in so many ways,” he says. “You’re going to make yourself much healthier, and you’re going to help the environment tremendously. Did you know that each car . . .”
And with that he was off and running. ■