Santa on labels spells problems

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TOO BAD the state of Connecticut backed down last month on its attempt to ban Seriously Bad Elf beer over the Santa Claus on its label.

The state had said that the British import violated its liquor rules because the label depicted a mean-looking elf with a slingshot firing Christmas balls at Santa’s sleigh.

The beer’s importer, Shelton Brothers of Massachusetts, blustered over the proposed ban and vowed to fight the ruling on First Amendment grounds. Connecticut’s Department of Consumer Protection then wimped out, finding that its Santa rule applied only to booze advertisements, not actual bottles.

Thus, the incident managed only to demonstrate the silliness of overzealous government regulators while providing a PR bonanza for an otherwise little-known beer.

Lost was a perfect opportunity to lay out some ground rules in what I predict is going to be the biggest battle for the liquor industry in the next 10 years. Namely, the reduction of America’s minimum drinking age.

There is growing sentiment among academics and some elected officials that the 21-year-old minimum fails to curb alcohol abuse. It’s hypocritical (18-year-old Americans can die in Iraq but they can’t legally pop open a Bud back home) and it likely promotes DWI (the automobile being the favorite place for teens to surreptitiously gulp ’em down).

Naturally, beer-makers can’t argue in favor of lowering the age to, say, 18, without facing the charge that they’re only interested in increasing sales.

What the public mostly hears, then, is only one side of the issue, from the likes of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and nattering do-gooders. The balance of this one-sided debate is further skewed when the industry – which talks a good game about fighting underage drinking – seemingly hands zealous anti-booze forces a gimme by plastering Jolly Old Saint Nicholas on a bottle of beer.

Of course, the Santa Claus contretemps, like the controversy over the minimum drinking age itself, is far more complex than that.

While several states (not Pennsylvania) have rules banning the use of Santa Claus in liquor-related advertising, most leave label regulation to the federal Tax and Trade Bureau, which does not ban Santa. Meanwhile, the voluntary code of conduct at the Beer Institute, the industry’s main lobbyist, prohibits the use of Santa Claus in advertising and marketing materials.

The rationale behind such bans is presumably that Santa’s reputation is an innocent one, a vision of sugar plums, not malt liquor.

Yet, as Tom Pastorius of Penn Brewing, in Pittsburgh notes, America’s image of Santa is also almost wholly a product of commercialization. “It was the retailers in New York City who used it to sell their products,” said Pastorius. “Before that, Christmas was almost entirely a religious holiday. ”

Indeed, Pastorius is careful to note that the label of his own St. Nikolaus Bock Bier depicts not Santa Claus, but a fourth-century bishop of what is now Turkey. It was St. Nicholas of Myra, famous for his gifts to the poor, who helped spawn the Santa Claus legend.

Whether you call him St. Nick or Santa, the image appears on plenty of other bottles, too. Santa’s Private Reserve, Santa’s Butt, Pere Noel, Kerst Pater and Delirium Noel all carry his image.

One of the most coveted holiday beers, Austrian-brewed Samichlaus, is obviously named after him.

Even if government regulators could crack down on every “violator,” the question is why bother?

Dan Shelton, who helped stir up this whole mess, correctly notes the image of Santa on a label is hardly inducement for a teenager to illegally down a bottle. “For one thing, kids that age don’t think Santa is cool,” Shelton said. “Plus all these beers are too expensive for kids, who just want to drink as much as they can to get drunk. ”

Yet it was just that party-hearty attitude that cost Bud Light back in the 1980s when it dressed up its Spuds McKenzie mascot in a Santa outfit. The beer packaging was quickly banned in a couple of states because it appeared to be aimed at kids, and Anheuser-Busch (which had used Santa in beer advertising as early as the ’50s) never stepped over that line again.

Today, the big beer-makers, at least, seem content to abide by the industry’s self-imposed ban.

Shelton, who is not a member of the Beer Institute, opposes that standard, saying it does nothing to combat underage drinking. Meanwhile, he says, a government ban of Santa is an “over-broad” step at the expense of his First Amendment rights to advertise his product.

Agreed. But unless these issues get a decent public airing, beer-makers can’t win. They’re going to have to contend with holier-than-thou nannies wagging their fingers, accusing them of exploiting a childhood icon.

And that helps no one, especially underage drinkers themselves, in the smoldering debate over the minimum drinking age.

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