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The Beer Industry’s Embrace Of Hispanic Market Prompts A Backlash From Activists

By Miriam Jordan, Wall Street Journal

Eighteen-year-old Sandra Villarda felt besieged by beer billboards on her drive down El Cajon Boulevard to San Diego City College. Every day, the ads greeted her, for Bud Light on one block, Miller Lite on the next. "Más Calor! Más Sabor! Más Fiestas!" one Miller Lite billboard read. "More Heat! More Flavor! More Parties!"

There are other sights along the route, too. "I see Latino kids sipping beer out of a Coke bottle," says Ms. Villarda, who recently joined the San Diego Youth Council, a group that promotes an antialcohol-abuse message. "There is a lot of pressure to drink in this community," she adds.

Facing stagnant beer sales, an aging population and the blossoming appeal of wine, the nation’s biggest brewers are aggressively courting Hispanics, the fastest-growing and youngest population group in the U.S. The brewers’ efforts, including a burst of advertising aimed at Spanish-speaking consumers, have rankled community health activists and rekindled the debate about when marketing crosses the line into the realm of unfairly targeting an ethnic group.

Last year, Anheuser-Busch Inc., the St. Louis brewer of Budweiser and Bud Light, created a new division dedicated to marketing to Hispanics and announced it would boost its 2006 ad spending in Hispanic media by two-thirds, to more than $60 million. SABMiller PLC’s Miller Brewing Co. signed a $100 million, three-year ad package with Spanish-language broadcaster Univision Communications Inc.

Marlene Coulis, vice president for brand management at Anheuser-Busch, says, "We would disagree with anyone who suggests beer billboards increase abuse among Latino or other minority communities." She adds, "It would be poor business for us in today’s world to ignore what is the fastest-growing segment of our population."

Advertisers find the Hispanic population enticing because its spending growth will far outstrip that of the general population for the foreseeable future, says Jeffrey Humphreys, who monitors Hispanic demographic and economic trends at the University of Georgia’s Selig Center.

"If you want to be successful, you must have a marketing and sales effort among Hispanic consumers," says Paul Mendieta, director of Hispanic marketing at Coors Brewing Co.’s Molson Coors unit.

But some in the Hispanic community are shrinking from the beer industry’s embrace because of another demographic reality: Nearly half of all Hispanics in the U.S. are under the age of 21. Activists are raising public-health concerns about the beer ad blitz on the grounds that it targets a population that skews young and is disproportionately likely to abuse alcohol. A 2004 survey of eighth-grade students found that Hispanic youth are much more likely to drink alcohol and get drunk, and to engage in binge drinking, than their white or black peers.



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