By Christopher Flavelle
On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that beer maker Anheuser-Busch has scaled back a promotion called “Fan Cans” in which the company targeted college students by painting cans of Bud Light in school colors. Anheuser-Busch got a push from the Federal Trade Commission, which was “concerned that cans will be marketed to fans under the legal age of 21.” In response, the company agreed to stop selling the special-edition cans where colleges objected.
A number of colleges had complained about the campaign, on the grounds that, among other things, it sends the wrong message about drinking. “We think it’s an ill-conceived and inappropriate campaign that runs counter to our collective efforts to combat underage drinking,” a spokesman for Boston College told the Associated Press.
On its face, restricting the ability of beer makers to target college students directly seems like a fine idea. After all, the logic seems to go, these people are old enough to be away from home, but not quite old enough to make responsible decisions.
But if college students aren’t quick-witted enough to see past colored beer cans, can we really trust them to navigate the slick marketing campaigns of other dangerous products? If we’re going to treat college kids like kids, then beer isn’t the only product that ought to have its marketing wings clipped by those who know what’s best. Here’s a list of products that get marketed to college students every day all across the country.
Last year, the American Lung Association reported that after 1998, when the tobacco industry signed an agreement with 46 states that restricted tobacco advertising, the industry began targeting college students by spending more money on promotions in bars and nightclubs where those students spend time. In a 2000-01 survey, students at 115 of the 119 schools studied said they saw tobacco promotions at a bar or nightclub.
Moreover, those promotions seem to work. According to a 2004 paper by researchers at Harvard, students who were exposed to those promotions were more likely to smoke than those who didn’t.
Should society be concerned about Big Tobacco targeting college kids? You bet: according to the ALA, fully half of occasional college smokers were still smoking four years later.
A study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center last year suggested that a little more than 3 percent of American males between the ages of 14 and 22 play online poker for money at least once a month. Nationally, that means more than 700,000 Americans in that age group gamble online for money at least once a month—and 300,000 at least once a week.
Are online gambling sites targeting college students? They’d be crazy not to.
“Win Your Tuition Now,” shouts the Web site for the Absolute Poker College Challenge, adding, “Introducing the biggest college competition since beer pong.” By entering a free online poker qualifier, students are told they can get a chance at $40,000 in prizes.
According to a 2006 report by the Oregon College Problem Gambling Awareness Program, “Internet gambling sites are increasingly marketing directly to college students.” If college students can’t be trusted not to drink too much, shouldn’t we be worried about them gambling too much?
The site FindCollegeCards.com offers a handy list of credit cards aimed specifically at college students. That list includes Citibank’s Card for College Students (no minimum income required!) and Discover’s Student Card (available in a catchy monogram edition).
Is there a problem with credit-card companies marketing directly to college students? Some government officials think so. Last year, New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo investigated agreements between credit-card companies and colleges in the state, allowing what he called “extremely aggressive” marketing practices.
In May, President Obama signed legislation that among other things restricted the ability of credit-card companies to offer credit to those under 21, making them first make sure students can pay or get their parents’ permission. But without a stronger government push against marketing to college students—who are, after all, these companies’ next generation of clients—it’s hard to imagine that credit-card companies will stop.
Each of these products is arguably as dangerous to students’ well-being as alcohol. Yet all of them are marketed at college students. If we’re going to be paternalistic, let’s at least be consistent.