Beer Ads Humbled by Indecency Probe

Gretchen Gallen
ST. LOUIS – The far-reaching implications of the Federal Communications Commission indecency probe, set off by Howard Stern, rock star Bono, and Janet Jackson, is beginning to take effect on the advertising world, which until recently has had carte blanche in the creativity department when it comes to selling any number of products including cars, women's lingerie, and beer.

In a surprise concession to the federal government's new view on all things deemed "indecent," which includes reference to sexual or excretory functions, many of the nation's top advertising agencies are joining television networks and radio outlets by taking a more humble, low-key approach to national ad campaigns.

Similar to other media organizations, ad agencies are feeling a particular kind of heat, especially as it concerns creating original, attention-grabbing ad spots that both entertain consumers and create brand awareness, while at the same time remaining within the FCC's sometimes murky guidelines for indecency.

Anheuser-Busch announced last week that it will tone down its Budweiser and Bud Light ads for next year's Super Bowl, which typically are some of the most heavily watched ad spots of the entire year, and also sometimes the funniest and raunchiest.

In the immediate aftermath of the Janet Jackson halftime incident, Anheuser-Busch pulled two of its popular ad campaigns launched this year, one which featured a horse farting on a couple in a carriage, and a dog biting a man's crotch.

The beer maker's decision came down from company CEO August Busch IV, who told his top ad agency executives that his company will keep itself in check in the coming year, to avoid alienating its consumer base.

Similarly, Michigan-based Ford Motor Co. has pulled an advertising spot that featured a cat being beheaded by a car sunroof, and Victoria's Secret cancelled its televised fashion show that has been the subject of criticism over its flagrant softcore sexuality. Sub sandwich maker Quiznos, which several months ago pulled its sponge monkey campaign because of alleged sexual overtones, pulled another ad campaign in which a man was suckling a wolf's teat.

A spokesperson for Quiznos said it never intended its marketing strategy to be offensive, and that the Super Bowl incident has not changed their advertising strategy.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently proposed the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which would give the FCC the authority to raise fines against a performer from $11,000 to $500,000.

A March 18 airing of the Oprah Winfrey show is the latest indecency debaucle to concern the FCC, which has so far received an estimated 1,600 complaint letters over an Oprah show in which graphic sexual acts and terminology were discussed.

The FCC has not yet stated whether it will pull the show from airing in syndication.