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Malt Assault

catching a buzz
Christopher Gardner

Liquid crack: Malt liquor is the cheapest high you can get. It sells for as little as $1.39 for a 40-ounce bottle, which is equal to five shots of whiskey.

The malt-liquor industry, drunk on high-octane sales to the black hip-hop nation, has set its sights on the Latino youth market

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

A LITTLE MORE than a year ago, a small article that appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch should have sent shock waves through the local Latino population. But few folks in these parts read the St. Louis papers, and even if they did, fewer still would have recognized the article's significance. But its full effects, when finally felt, will almost certainly have a devastating impact in the backyards and bars of the barrios of Sonoma County and other California communities.

St. Louis­based Anheuser-Busch brewers announced that with the introduction of a new brand called Hurricane, it was entering the malt-liquor sales wars in earnest.

Although Anheuser-Busch--now under investigation by Federal Trade Commission for marketing to underage drinkers--has long dominated the American beer industry with its flagship Budweiser and Bud Light brands, it has never quite been able to master the selling of malt liquor. Its King Cobra label languishes fourth among malts both in the nation and in California, partly because of its laid-back advertising campaigns.

Bringing in Hurricane under the slogan "Brace Yourself," Anheuser-Busch planned to change all that. "Hurricane has a more street-relevant imagery [than King Cobra]," an Anheuser-Busch spokesperson was quoted as saying. "We want it to be part of an attitude."

Often referred to on the street as "liquid crack," malt liquor is the dregs of American brews. Although it is packaged like beer and looks like beer when poured in a glass, malt liquor's alcohol content is twice as high, and its concentration of corn syrup and other sweeteners serves to jack up the intoxication process. Even beer industry papers refer to malt liquor as "high octane."

A 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor, which in many circles is the standard serving for one drinker, has the same amount of alcohol as five shots of whiskey. Its effect on the human system can be violent, murderous. "Throwing back a 40"--drinking it down in great gulps, as is the fashion--feels like the equivalent of someone standing behind you with a baseball bat, teeing off on the back of your head every time you take a swallow. You leave your brains on the pavement when you walk away. If you can walk away.

Malt liquor is also the cheapest legal high you can get. Selling in groceries and liquor stores for as little as $1.39 for a 40-ounce bottle, King Cobra, for example, goes for about the same price as soda water.

In the United States, malt-liquor drinking has been most often associated with the African-American community. Black consumption of all malt-liquor brands in this country is estimated at 28 percent, but it is considerably higher for such high-profile malts as Olde English 800 and St. Ides. A marketing brochure for Olde English once noted that the product is "brewed for relatively high-alcohol content (important to the ethnic market!)." And spokespersons for St. Ides ads are almost exclusively African-American rap artists.

Some malt-liquor marketers have purposely avoided the Latino market. A sales executive for Stroh's (Schlitz Malt Liquor, Champale, Colt 45, Mickey's) said last year in Beer Marketer's Insights, an industry newsletter, that marketing malt to Latinos doesn't work because while malt liquor is often positioned as the brew of outsiders, "Hispanic consumers seem to be more interested in becoming part of the American mainstream and not as much being different or setting themselves apart."

If this is the case, why should the introduction of Anheuser-Busch's Hurricane brand have any relevance to the Latino population?

Well, the Stroh's executive was wrong when he described the Latino population as exclusively mainstream-oriented. American Latinos are a young population, a median age nine years younger than non-Hispanic whites, with almost 30 percent under age 15. A restless rebelliousness brews within that segment of the Latino youth population whose music influence is more apt to be rap than mariachi. They define themselves in different ways, setting themselves apart, and they are ripe for the youth-targeted malt-liquor campaigns.

More important, Latinos are estimated to become the largest ethnic minority in the country by the year 2010, with a probable purchasing power of $188 billion a year. The chance that the malt-liquor brewers would overlook such a market is practically nil.

Anheuser-Busch has proven itself to be a master at selling beer to the Latino market, where Budweiser is "el rey de cervezas" (the king of beers). If the giant brewer can market malt liquor to Latinos in the same way it was marketed to African-Americans--and with the same success--then the other malt-liquor dealers will surely follow.

By the Numbers

WHAT ONE SEES evidence of in convenience-store parking lots from Cloverdale to Petaluma--where young Latinos congregate to throw back 40s--has been quantified by sociologists and social workers. The statistical evidence is irrefutable: There is a high rate of alcoholism and alcohol-related problems within America's Latino population.

Latino youth are particularly vulnerable. A study last year showed a strong relationship between the number of alcohol outlets, the prevalence of alcohol billboards, and the incidence of violence and crime among the Latino youth population. One Bay Area report found earlier this year that although Latino high school youth are less likely to drink than white youth, "those who do drink tend to drink heavier than their white counterparts." That doesn't take into account the large number of Latino high school dropouts (at a rate of 50 percent in California as opposed to a 15 percent rate for African-Americans), a group that tends to have a higher drinking rate than students.

A distinct pattern of public drinking among Mexican-American men leads to a higher rate of alcohol-related violent deaths. While 2 percent of white and African-American deaths occur in bars, the figure is 12 percent for Mexican-Americans. One study of homicide victims determined that alcohol was found in the bloodstream of fully 70 percent of Mexican-American male victims between the ages of 25 and 35. A University of California Medical Center study indicates that alcohol is involved in twice as many deaths of Mexican-American males as those of whites.

"Drinking is accepted within the Latino culture," says drug and alcohol counselor José Flores. "It's culturally based. It's been around forever. Latinos drink within the family structure, within a religious context. It's used in festivities, even in funerals. Many Latinos start drinking at home; I remember having a couple of sips of beer when my dad would come home. It's not like drug abuse. Especially among new immigrants and first-generation Latinos, drug abuse is a huge stigma. But alcohol . . . that's acceptable. And that's what makes it such a problem when it's abused."

Drug and alcohol program director Rogelio Balderas agrees. "Hispanics tend to drink to excess," Balderas says. "We don't drink to have a good time; we drink to get drunk."

In Mexico, he says, that is less of a problem than in the United States. "In Mexico, people drink por quenseña, every 15 days, that is, every paycheck. You drink your little bit of money off, you get drunk, you sleep it off, you go back to work. But here in the United States, people get paid more often. They get paid more money. The alcohol's more accessible.

"So when Mexican immigrants bring with them the same type of drinking habits they had in Mexico, it gets accelerated."

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Drinko for Cinco

SOME CRITICS BELIEVE that part of the problem of alcoholism in the Latino community is that alcohol companies are expropriating elements of the culture, turning it to their own benefit.

"The alcohol companies are trying to take over Latino culture by sponsoring festivals and institutions," says Felix Alvarez, a professor at the National Hispanic University. "They give scholarships to Latino educational institutions, they give grants to civic groups like the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, they give 'Hispanic Achievement Awards' and then do full ads on the awards in the Hispanic press to make sure we all know about it.

"The alcohol companies don't do this because they love us," he adds. "They do this for two reasons: one, so that Latino culture will be closely associated with drinking; and two, so that Latino organizations will be less likely to speak out against drinking."

Alvarez says one example is the sponsorship of the Cinco de Mayo festivals by Budweiser Beer. This formerly staid military-oriented celebration has, with the active prodding of beer company sponsorships, recently passed St. Patrick's Day as the No. 1 alcohol consumption holiday in the United States. Not coincidentally, rock- and bottle-throwing melees leading to numerous arrests have broken up Cinco festivals in both San Jose and Los Angeles in recent years.

< Others believe that the problem is the saturation of alcohol ads in the Latino community, manipulating national, religious, and sexual images in order to induce Latinos to drink.

San Jose State professor Maria Alaniz says such ads are nearly impossible to escape in the barrio. Hard-liquor commercials continued on Spanish-language television even while the liquor industry was voluntarily keeping them out of the rest of the media. And one recent study organized by Alaniz showed that the typical Latino student in some Bay Area cities passes between 10 and 61 billboard liquor ads each day on the way to school.

Some alcohol companies expropriate Latino national or cultural symbols, surrounding themselves with Latin American flags, architecture, party symbols such as piñatas, or food items like tortillas or jalapeño peppers. A Budweiser ad repeats the popular Mexican nationalist saying "Como Mexico no hay dos" (There's only one Mexico), and then adds, "Como Budweiser tampoco" (Budweiser, too). Miller stirs the pot of Mayan nationalism, reprinting a Mexican map with pre-Columbian borders. Corona puts Mexican clothes on a parrot, sticks a bottle of beer in each claw, and has it alternately shouting "Viva Mexico!" or proclaiming its beer as "the Drinko for Cinco [de Mayo]."

Other ads, almost breathtaking in their brazenness, try to enlist God's aid. An ad for Felipe II whiskey shows a priest, full glass in hand, blissfully eyeing heaven, from which a soft light has descended to bathe his enraptured face. "Tomarle no es pecado" reads the copy. To drink is not a sin. Cuervo Gold aligns itself with one of the sacred religious symbol of Old Mexico, placing a margarita blender on top of a Mayan pyramid.

But most of the ads use sex as a selling point, some double-dipping with patriotic themes. Coors dresses a smiling, curvy woman in a swimsuit upon which is printed a map of Mexico. Budweiser shows a group of guerrilleras modeled after the heroines of the 1905 Revolution, but now with their shirts thrown away and only crisscrossing cartridge belts to partially cover bare breasts. More often the Latino-oriented liquor ads rely strictly on straight sex with no chaser--long-legged, long-haired women with half-exposed bosoms and hiked skirts, often alone in bars, obviously waiting for a man.

Alaniz explains the special significance of such ads to Latino men. "In Latino culture, if a woman is alone in a bar, it means she's not worthy of respect," she says. She pauses, considering her words carefully. "It means she's a whore. They're filling our communities with images of whores.

"The advertising campaigns of the alcohol industry aimed at the Latino population are insulting our culture and history," she says. She blinks and her voice drops to an almost plaintive whisper as she says the word insulting. Dispassionate and rigorously academic in her writing, articulate and quietly forceful in her public presentations, she allows this one unintended insight into the depth of her emotion on this subject.

If she seems to take this personally, there is a reason. Alaniz grew up in a Mexican-American community in Stockton, where her family home stood behind the neighborhood bar. "I saw it firsthand," she says. "I heard all the noise. I saw the men walk home and beat their wives in their front yards. I saw men fighting and shooting each other. This bar was a magnet for the men. They were mostly farm workers, and I saw them work hard all week and then go out on the weekend and spend their whole paychecks on alcohol. I saw all the harm alcoholism causes in a community and in a family. I saw all of that stuff as a kid, and it's deeply imprinted in me. That's why I'm committed to this work."

Alaniz sees the alcohol advertising campaigns both as an attack upon Latina womanhood and as an attempt to "commodify" Latino culture. "Malt-liquor ads are raunchier than the rest," she says. "If a beer ad puts a woman in spandex, the malt-liquor ad puts her in leather, often astride a can or a bottle. They are the worst."

She points to a photograph of an Olde English ad taken inside a liquor store earlier this year, a picture of a black-dressed Latina against a tiger-striped background. The tiger is one of the advertising symbols for Olde English. "El Tigre te desea," the ad copy reads. The Tiger desires you. The tiger-striped background seems to undulate and pulsate, like living flesh.

Fair Game

A SPOKESPERSON for Bromley & Associates, the San Antonio Latino advertising agency that handles several Anheuser-Busch ads, says that the agency is prohibited from commenting on anything connected with the brewer's advertising campaigns. And representatives for Stroh's and Anheuser-Busch failed to respond to repeated telephone messages requesting that they comment on their malt-liquor marketing policies.

But Octavio Emilio Nuiry, an independent Latino marketing executive, says he has no particular problem with the way alcohol companies are marketing their products to Latin Americans.

In the past, Nuiry was highly critical of the way U.S. advertisers have approached the Latino market. He is a Cuban-American journalist who worked in the public-relations field for years and presently owns his own marketing firm in Long Beach. Last year, Nuiry wrote an article for Hispanic magazine titled "Ban the Bandito!," which took advertisers to task for using stereotyped Latino images.

But Nuiry says that Latino-targeted alcohol ads are "quite good; they're put together by very clever people. . . . A line can be crossed, of course, if the ads are done crudely or with a lack of respect for the culture," he explains. "But using Latin American flags and national symbols is fine. Look, I'm Cuban. If Budweiser did a very good ad of Cuba, I'd be proud of it. Advertising is driven by emotion, and nationalism is a strong emotion. It's fair game."

Nuiry laughs at the Felipe II priest ad, denying that it steps over into blasphemy. "No, this ad is very funny," he says. "Sometimes there is a humor to things that other people might not understand, but Spanish-speaking people, they won't miss the punch line. There's a tradition in the Catholic Church of priests drinking, even being alcoholics. Americans are appalled by this, but you can't look at it from an American point of view. America is a conservative society."

Nuiry says that the Latino-owned advertising agencies that produced some of these ads had "a certain amount of moral responsibility owed" to the Latino community not to create advertisement that was detrimental to the community. "Every ad agency should have some moral fiber and some limit to what they will do. But they also owe it to their clients to produce good work."

Hip-hopped Up

ALTHOUGH ONLY A HANDFUL of Latino rappers have done malt-liquor commercials, the rap/hip-hop connection is the key to understanding how malt-liquor advertising has already penetrated the Latino youth market.

"They don't really need a lot of Latino rappers to push malt liquor," says Oakland researcher Makani Themba. "They can get to young Latino consumers in other ways." She has studied the issue of malt-liquor advertising for the past six years, first as a media policy specialist with the Marin Institute for San Rafael's Prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Problems, and now as co-director of the Oakland-based Praxis Project, a media and policy advocacy group in such areas as environmental justice and violence and substance abuse prevention.

"Hip-hop is not stratified along racial lines in the same way as the rest of the country," Themba says. "Advertisers have turned hip-hop into a single, multicultural market, with black kids as the 'opinion leaders.' It's called the 'hip-hop nation.' When they get black rappers to do ads for malt liquor, they're reaching black kids, Latinos, and everybody else who identifies with the music."

She points to a November 1996 American Demographics article, "Marketing Street Culture: Bringing Hip-Hop Style to the Mainstream," which lists such trendy, high-style mass merchandisers as Tommy Hilfiger and Estee Lauder as riding the hip-hop wagon to sell their wares, and citing figures that more than 50 percent of American consumers aged 12 to 20 either "like or strongly like" rap music.

Themba says it was Olde English that first made the jump into hip-hop, but it was St. Ides that set the identity of malt liquor as what she calls the "gangsta drink of choice, the brew of alienation."

In the early '90s, the rap pendulum was taking a dangerous swing from the "wave your hands in the air, and party till you just don't care" East Coast to the more raw and violent "fuck tha police" West Coast. With a huge leap of corporate faith, St. Ides signed up a core of these young, chip-on-their-shoulder, immature, and sometimes even mentally unstable rappers to be the spokespersons for their brand.

Rather than trying to dilute gangsta rap's hard edge by giving them studio-written lines, St. Ides turned the rappers loose, allowing them to create their own copy. In the first half of the '90s, St. Ides rap ads reflected gangsta rap's gross immorality, linking malt liquor with drug use, underage drinking, misogyny, violence, gang activity, and irresponsible sex. Eric B. and Rakim labeled the drink "bold like a Smith and Wesson," and Erick and Parrish called on their homies to "hit the bozak [gun] while I take a sip."

In a TV ad, Snoop Doggy Dog rapped, "I just come through the door with a box of 4-0's [40 ounces]. 40's just a bounce and a house full of whores." The word (pronounced "hoes"), an obviously derogatory gangsta rap term for women, was bleeped out in the ad. But the rhyming reference was too obvious to miss and, in case it might have been, the camera lingered on the figure of a young black woman while the bleep was heard.

Yo-yo, a female performer reportedly under the drinking age when she made the ad, rapped, "St. Ides in the house. Ladies, try this. Puts you in the mood. Makes you wanna oooh!" But the prize for both underage and sexual explicitness went to O'shea Jackson, the Los Angeles gang member, now movie star, rapping under the name Ice Cube. "Please pass the bottle, 'cause I've been drinking ever since I could swallow," he said in one commercial.

And in another, this one aired on African-American­oriented television, Ice Cube just cut to the chase: "Get your girl in the mood quicker, get your jimmy thicker, with St. Ides malt liquor."

The ads provoked outraged protests. In some African-American communities, malt-liquor billboards and posters were defaced. St. Ides commercials were publicly criticized by the U.S. Surgeon General and the New York State Consumer Protection Commission and drew fines from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the New York State Attorney General's Office. One of the largest complaints was that by using a music form, rap, which was heavily popular among teenagers, St. Ides was directly targeting underage drinkers. The reaction to the ads was so bad that G. Heileman Co., the national brewer that had created the St. Ides label, disavowed any connection with St. Ides.

But the trend had been set.

"Before the St. Ides ads began in the early '90s," Themba says, "binge drinking was not a facet of young African-American life. In only a few years, they turned that completely around. Now when you think of rap or inner-city black kids, you think of a malt liquor 40."

Not coincidentally, malt-liquor sales increased dramatically in the same period. While malt liquor comprises less than 5 percent of the beer market, it is the fastest-growing segment. In the early '90s, malt-liquor sales increased almost 25 percent, while beer sales overall had a 5 percent growth rate.

Several of the other malt liquors followed St. Ides' lead, making their ads and commercials, as Maria Alaniz puts it, "raunchier." Colt 45 began an advertising campaign called "It Works Every Time." One of the print ads in the series showed an African-American woman down on all fours, with a can of Colt 45 hovering directly behind her. It did not take much imagination to get the inference.

Earlier this year, posters for Anheuser-Busch's Hurricane Malt Liquor began appearing in liquor stores and groceries in the Bay Area. They show a luscious Afro-Latina, dark and inviting, long hair blowing in a tropical wind, jeans shorts ripped to the top of her long, black thighs, standing next to a bottle of malt brew.

"Bebe este y yo soy lo tuyo," she seems to be saying. Drink this and I'm yours.

Alcohol stirred by sex, a witch's brew. The malt-liquor assault upon the Latino community has begun in earnest.

As the Hurricane ads say, brace yourself.

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From the Oct. 2-8, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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