Three years ago, Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of Calif. wrote Norman Pearlstine, the editor in chief of Time Inc., to ask him to forgo tobacco advertising in Sports Illustrated, the nation's largest-circulation general sports magazine. "Every issue of Sports Illustrated is read by millions of American children," wrote Mr. Waxman, who got back a letter from the company promising a "fresh look."
Now, the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition is on the newsstands and it is full of ads that advertise adult products. The latest SI, as it's known, has eight pages of tobacco ads and 12-1/2 pages of alcohol ads. Based on its ad rate of $209,000 for a full-page color ad, this one issue of SI will net $4.28 million in advertising revenue in these two categories.
Over the past two years, the swimsuit issue has had a total of 17 pages of tobacco advertising and 37-1/2 pages of alcohol ads or 44 percent of the total pages. According to the company, the readership is about 55 million people.
This swimsuit issue comes at a time when Washington is increasingly concerned about such advertising. Congress, as part of its attempt to draft comprehensive tobacco-control legislation, is trying to figure out what to do about tobacco advertising.
Last year, under a proposed agreement worked out with 40 state attorneys general, the tobacco companies would have voluntarily shifted their print ads to black-and-white text only. However, the advertising industry says it will challenge this agreement on First Amendment grounds, if it's mandated by Congress.
And, only last month, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala gave a speech to the American Council on Education, in which she pointed out that binge drinking among teens is on the rise. "But how can we expect our young people to say 'no' to binge drinking when society, alumni - and especially advertising - are sending messages that say 'yes'?''
Last year, SI published a 12-page Miller beer ad (about $2.1 million in ad revenue) that seemed geared toward a youthful audience. "Sports fans tend to be beer drinkers and sports and young people are an important marketing combination for brewers," says George Hacker, director of alcohol policies at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group.
For years, antitobacco groups have been after Sports Illustrated to stop taking the ads. "It's our position all tobacco ads should be banned from youth magazines - and this would qualify," says John Garrison, the president of the American Lung Association in New York.
Bill Novelli, the head of the Washington-based group Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, says his organization has given up trying to influence SI. "It's a company without social responsibility on this issue," he says.
The magazine denies it is targeting kids. "SI is edited, produced, and published for a male adult audience. That's our target," says Robin Shallow, a spokeswoman for the magazine. "That's pretty much all we have to say about it."
In 1996, MRI Teenmark, a syndicated research service, found that nearly 24 percent of the magazine's readers were between the ages of 12 and 17. In this age group, Sports Illustrated is the fourth-most read magazine after TV Guide, Seventeen and Teen (including Sassy). However, that's the research for the regular Sports Illustrated. The teen readership for the swimsuit issue may be larger since it has a high "pass around" rate and stays on newsstands for up to three months.
Ms. Shallow says the magazine has no idea how many teens read the magazine since it asks its research companies to track only adult readership. "We sell our advertisers on adults, ages 18 to 49."
Dan Cohen, a marketing and consulting expert who has 30 years of experience in the ad industry, says it is virtually impossible to craft ads that will appeal only to people 18 and over. "I would defy anyone to sit me in front of a creative director at an agency and have him say, 'My message is so well-crafted it only appeals to people between the ages of 18 and 24, but it has no appeal to people ages 14 to 18.' " He adds, "Most teens identify up."
In fact, a study by Michael Siegel at the Boston University School of Public Health found that teens three favorite cigarette brands are heavily advertised in SI - Camel, Marlboro, and Newport. Writing last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, he concluded, "Cigarette brands popular among young adolescents are more likely than adult brands to advertise in magazines with high youth readerships."
In the past, it appears at least one of the tobacco companies, RJ Reynolds, was curious about what influences teenage brand selection. It did market research on the issue. This research was entered into evidence in St. Paul at the on-going trial of the state against the tobacco companies.
According to this document, the company's objective was "to increase our young adult franchise." The document defined young adults as ages 14 to 24, which it termed "tomorrow's cigarette business."
At the trial, an RJR executive testified it was wrong to do the brand analysis and that the company does not market cigarettes to underage smokers. However, RJR's Camel brand does advertise in the SI's swimsuit issue.
David Milenthal, chairman of HMS Partners, an ad agency based in Columbus, Ohio, finds it ironic that SI runs the tobacco ads. "It has created such a strong moral point of view on how to behave in sports and how we spend money in sports," he says. "I think it's time for SI to stand up for its own moral viewpoint."
Shallow says the magazine has no comment.