Fan Can Fiasco

By Tyler Kingkade

Beer cans are a favorite subject among college students. They litter streets and yards on weekend mornings, pile up in small mountains around the heaps of garbage outside Jack Trice Stadium at football games and replace books as they’re carried in backpacks Friday and Saturday nights. College students also tend to stock up on gear with their school’s colors and logo, so it’s a no brainer they would have been excited about the Bud Light “fan cans” in August and September of 2009.

But as the fan can promotion was launched and grocery stores began to set up stacks of Bud Light cases with the limited edition cans, with altered colors to match the major colleges nearby, university officials from at least 27 schools around the country got upset.

The Federal Trade Commission spoke with Bud Light’s brewer Anheuser-Busch, owned by InBev, about concerns many people raised about whether the campaign was targeting underage consumers and promoting binge drinking. The FTC expressed the problem area came from beer being targeted at a college, near a college campus, would attract a population mostly underage.

One of the major universities not to formally object was the University of Texas at Austin. Christine Plonsky, director of women’s athletics, who also oversees their licensing, stated in an article with ABC News “It’s not relevant to us right now.”

“The cans were bright M&M orange,” Plonsky went on to say. “There were no Texas symbols, no Texas marks and there were no other collaterals to insinuate our endorsement.”

Editorials were written in various publications across the country, in both professional and student run newspapers, criticizing the promotion. The Iowa State Daily Editorial Board wrote on Aug. 24, 2009 “We on the Editorial Board are outraged and disappointed at this promotion that aims a potentially harmful product straight at college students.” To which the Story County Prevention Policy Board praised them and soon after many other letters filled the Opinion section of the Daily on both sides.

Commander Mike Brennan of the Ames Police Department laughed later on about the fan cans, joking that it was “a great way to sell beer.”

The manager of Campustown Liquors in Ames was reported as saying they were great and sold like hot cakes.

A Wall Street Journal article focused on Louisiana State University’s response to the purple-and-gold Bud Light cans sold in their market. LSU officials didn’t formally ask Anheuser-Busch to cease distribution in their market but did state they would keep an eye on them to make sure people knew it was not an LSU product.

A Super Target store manager in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, hometown to LSU, who spoke on condition of anonymity to Ethos, stated “we probably had the cans for about six weeks.”

“It was mostly people in their 20’s and 30’s buying them,” she went on to say. “It didn’t really increase the sale of Bud Light significantly. It seemed to be more so the usual customers.”

At a HyVee in Ames, store director Tom Gard suggested similar statistics about the sale of the fans cans in his store on the west side.

“I wouldn’t say things were any different,” Gard says. “Bud Light is a huge category so probably the same people buying as normal.

“I heard more about the controversy elsewhere rather than my store.” Gard goes on to say. HyVee sells a vast amount of ISU merchandise and has had both the fan cans and Iowa State University approved merchandise but without issue on either. Gard adds “I personally never received any complaints.”

“I don’t know how much it influenced anyone. I don’t think whether [a can] has Cy or Obama it would be any different,” Commander Brennan believes.

On Oct. 14, the Daily Editorial Board seemed to take a different stand on fan cans and ISU’s views on alcohol in general. Bringing up what many others had already discussed, the beer sold at an ISU “home” game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri and the fact tailgating is allowed to take place in Ames with disruption.

Perhaps the largest piece of evidence they mentioned, along with many others in comments left on the Des Moines Register’s website, was the fact I-State branded shot glasses, wine glasses, can koozies, pitchers and bottle openers were all sold directly on campus at the University Book Store. The University of Iowa is no exception. The comments being posted on the Register’s web site flared with remarks the real issue was none of the schools were getting a piece of the money.

Context in the Trademark Battle

Iowa State’s trademark officer Leesha Zimmerman has large black garbage bags stacked in the corner of her office, filled with confiscated shirts using ISU colors and logos. Most were collected at football games from “transient vendors,” those who wander around selling the products.

“This year is the biggest I’ve ever seen,” Zimmerman says in regard to the shirts. The University trademark office is the regulator of who gets to use ISU’s likeness.

Not all of the shirts use ISU’s name, logo or even colors but precedent for these situations has been set by Board of Supervisors for Louisiana State University Agriculture and Mechanical College, et al. v. Smack Apparel Co., et al., a case heard by the Federal Court of Appeals and decided in favor of four universities (LSU, the University of Oklahoma, Ohio State University and the University of Southern California) that sought to protect the colors they use on their merchandise. The case defined the term “symbol” which a university has rights to can include a color or a color combination.

None of the shirts in question had used the schools’ names but the Court decided the “contextual references” such as using a state’s outline or citing school achievements like Ohio State’s seven national football championships were enough to show who the shirts particularly referred to.

This means there was enough “contextual” evidence to say because the cardinal red-and-gold Bud Light cans were next to cases of black-and-gold and purple-and-gold cans in Iowa, and no other special color combinations were sold in the same stores, the cans were referring to Iowa’s three major universities.

“Context matters,” says Iowa State University’s Legal Counsel Paul Tanaka. “That’s what we learned from the Smack Apparel case.”

“When certain stores marketed the fan cans, there were black-and-gold cans and there were red-and-yellow cans around the fake football fields. And those were the only colors around the fake football field which tends to suggest one thing; that it relates to the schools.” Tanaka had been assigned the task to draft a letter for Anheuser-Busch explaining ISU’s position on the fan cans and request the end of distribution within their market.

Tanaka explains it is not simply “selling” a logo or colors, in the legal world the issue is licensing and approving the use of the school’s image. It may come with or without profit.

“My letter did raise concerns about underage drinking, it did raise trademark concerns, it did raise issues of damage to Iowa State University’s image because of a marketing program people assumed we had licensed,” Tanaka clarifies.

Zimmerman explains the trademark office puts applicants who wish to use the ISU name and logo through a process looking at the type of product, quality, adequate insurance and any fees to be placed before a contract is offered. Not everyone gets approved for a license and the benefits for the school are examined as well.

When it comes to licensing ISU to Anheuser-Busch though, Zimmerman suggests “it’s no different than with US Cellular or Coca-Cola.” Though she does say certain rules are applied.

“We don’t allow any advertising [of alcohol] on campus,” she says.

Zimmerman explains that the shot glasses found in the book store are actually called “commemorative glasses.”

“I don’t drink but I have some I keep in my kitchen and use for keeping toothpicks in my kitchen,” she says. Also offering the wine glasses could be used for serving a dessert.

“We operate under the same societal norms as everyone else,” Zimmerman says.

It’s hard for some to find the line where the University stands on alcohol issues. Beer is served on campus in the Memorial Union. Alcohol is allowed in many dorms so long as it’s the possession of someone 21 or older but it is not allowed in the hallways, even if it’s in the hands of someone of age. Community Advisors and Hall Directors are supposed to escort the of age person out of the building if they were to try to walk to a room with a case of beer exposed in the halls.

When asking a Community Advisor during this situation if someone’s allowed to have beer in a room but not a hallway, how are they supposed to get it there?

“Not my problem,” the CA responds.

However, when approaching a CA on duty at the Friley hall desk about discussing with Ethos the further details of these fuzzy areas, they at first seem willing to do so.

“Yeah, that should be alright, let me go check real quick though,” the CA says.

Then they go into an office in the back to make sure it’s okay. They return to inform that CAs are not allowed to discuss these issues and, if desired, the alcohol policies can be read on the Department of Residence’s web site.

What about those ISU logos in bars?

Austin Ballhagem, junior in public relations, works at a couple restaurants in her hometown of Parkersburg, Iowa. She says both of them are filled with advertising for alcohol and many of the ads have to do with state universities. Ballhagem describes Matt’s Grill & Bar as being covered by University of Iowa posters but also for the other schools. This is thanks to the owner who is a huge Iowa fan. The posters change every three months or so with the sports seasons or when products are switched, both at Matt’s and her other employer Dutch’s Steakhouse.

The posters at the restaurants carry both school logos and beer logos on the same paper.

“There’s a lot of encouragement for people to watch football games there,” Ballhagem says. “For instance, Dutch’s has the big high school football games played on TV and for every touchdown everyone gets a free shot.”

Drinking promotions like at Dutch’s are common and just as well so is the alcohol-school tied advertising. It’s not restricted to college towns, small towns or dive bars. While Ballhagem says she sees a contradiction “to an extent,” she also believes “for the most part, people are going to drink regardless of the can.”

Binge drinking is often defined as four or five drinks in one sitting, such as in the 2005 Monitoring the Future study which concluded 29% of 12th graders “binge” drink. However, four drinks do not necessarily define an intoxication level reaching a blood alcohol level of .08. Male and female bodies vary greatly in reception of alcohol, largely due to weight.

ISU student Jessica Brinck, 23, is on her third drink of the night at Paddy’s Irish Pub on Welch Ave. in Ames. Just over her shoulder is a poster advertising for $5 pitchers on football game days. Both the Iowa State logo and Budweiser logos are featured on the 8 and ½ by 11 inch ad.

“I think it does contradict ISU’s position,” Brinck says. “I thought the objection [to fan cans] was ridiculous because of their reasons like it promotes ‘binge drinking’ – I think it promotes school spirit.” Brinck fails to see a true correlation between any marketing by alcohol companies and underage drinking.

“I drank underage and it had nothing to do with ads,” she goes on to admit.

There’s no doubt Anheuser-Busch is sensitive about their image. Past Budweiser marketing campaigns like the series of commercials with frogs and penguins drew criticisms they were aiming at minors, similar to the way Joe Camel was criticized for being too kid-friendly. Various alcohol companies often add the words “drink responsibly” to their ads, while some have gone as far as placing responsibility as the base for commercials.

When calling 1-800 DIAL-BUD for Anheuser-Busch, while waiting on hold one would hear the same ads played on the radio but also hear Public Service Announcements about drinking moderately and responsible parenting. The PSAs are played at least as much as the beer ads on hold. Both when calling and when visiting Budweiser’s web site people are required to enter their birth date and only granted access if they say they’re 21 or older.

Across the street from Paddy’s is a red and yellow painted bar named Cy’s Roost, who’s logo is the beloved Cy with ISU on his chest (It’s almost identical to the Cy featured on CyRide bus stop signs). In the window is a poster in red and yellow which says “Go State” and has the Miller Lite logo inside the letter ‘o.’ A couple bars even serve alcohol in 32 ounce ISU logoed cups, many times at a deep discount.

At the end of the block on the corner of Welch and Lincoln Way is a bar called Headliner’s, which has walls full of beer advertisements, Iowa State gear and some larger posters featuring the ISU football schedule, ISU’s logo and a big Bud Light logo.

The manager, Matt Nitchals explains he has nothing to do with the posters.

“I just put up what they send me,” Nitchals says. Doll Distributing LLC is who sends him his Anheuser-Busch beer and along with it, they send posters, ads, signs, neon lights and other promotion materials for Headliner’s to display. He says there are certain rules on how the beer companies can advertise.

“No one’s ever come and complained. No one said anything about the fans cans,” he adds. Headliner’s was able to receive about 12 cases of the ISU colored fan cans and sold them during the University of Iowa vs. Iowa State football game in September, after grocery stores and the Ames Target store had stopped selling them.

“I think we were the only ones to get them and they were gone within a few hours,” Nitchals says. He goes on to say they were “entirely within right” to sell the cans. Indeed, they were. As Nitchals points out “If they have an issue, it’s their problem, not ours.”

Campustown businesses in Ames today revolve around alcohol. Most places sell it, from the bars to AJ’s Market, to the restaurants like Pizza Pit and Stomping Grounds. Others get a large portion of their business catering to drunks until 3:00 a.m. like Jimmy John’s and Pita Pit. The Superdog stand Gyros and Smiles operate solely during peak late night inebriated foot traffic. Of course, there are exceptions in the barber shop, salons, copy centers and ISU clothing stores. Yet, with the Varsity Theatre closed in the fall and other empty store fronts already decorating Campustown, future businesses may want to plan like Jeff’s Pizza and Angie’s Kitchen have, making the decision to stay open late for the drunk crowds.

The Ames Police keep a constant interaction with the Campustown community. The night shift lieutenant meets quarterly with all bar managers in Ames to keep a dialogue. The APD offer free training for bar staff to teach how to check IDs properly and tips to avoid problems.

“What’s very important to [the bars] is their liquor – it’s their way of life,” Commander says. “We want people to go out and have a good time,” he adds, “but we want everyone to stay safe.”

The APD strives to keep good relations with Campustown business especially on night life issues.

“For example, Pizza Pit’s owner Tom Northrop has owned his business for over 20 years, he understands his business and he’s got a lot of good ideas. So we communicate quite a bit,” Brennan says.

“People want to go out and enjoy themselves and that’s no problem,” he adds. “We just hope they do it in a reasonable and safe manner.”

The Ames Police Chief, Charles M. Cychosz, serves on the VEISHEA committee every year and he works closely with the Department of Public Safety, the Government of the Student Body and various other groups talking about issues such as alcohol problems and promoting alternate activities.

Controversy? What Controversy?

“The University’s position is we are not in any controversy,” Zimmerman states. “We operate under the norms of society. I don’t see any contradiction. You know, where do you draw the line?” Zimmerman points out that ISU’s mini-corn hole game could be associated with tailgating, which is associated by many with drinking.

“It wasn’t just that it was the same colors, it was that there was beer in the can,” she says. Zimmerman cites past examples where a promotion was “buy a beer, get an ISU glass” – “absolutely not” she says. When she gets a report of a Campustown bar serving alcohol in ISU glasses, she immediately takes note for further action.

Anheuser-Busch has been hurt by the fan can debacle. The company failed to return numerous phone calls by Ethos and did not issue any statement. The Bud Light special edition cans are no longer sold near Iowa State, as the company quickly complied with requests by colleges around the country and pulled distribution within markets near those campuses. The brewer has also refused to release what schools had formally complained.

No one seemed to enjoy discussing the fan cans within Iowa State or among retailers. The situation was certainly messy for all parties, unintentionally bringing up other issues with each view point.

“I think it was ultimately a move [ISU] had to do,” Ballhagem says. “They don’t want to endorse drinking but I think everyone got a sense it had to do with money.”

Zimmerman suggests the consumer drives what gets licensed though, so if people didn’t want to buy shot glasses with collegiate logos they may stop allowing Cy to be placed them. But Zimmerman points out ISU has a wide variety of demographics and age groups to appeal to and placing ISU logoed  shot glasses in the UBS is not necessarily aimed at college students.

Perhaps the media missed the mark, at least for Iowa State. The University entirely had legal right to the colors on the cans. Budweiser never sought dialogue with schools prior to the campaign. The University does have plenty of alumni interested in collecting bottle openers and shot glasses with Cy on them and they are legal. But that won’t stop the public from drawing concerns.

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