DEBATE RE-IGNITES ETHICAL MARKETING OF ALCOHOL

NEW YORK -- A discussion over suggestive packaging for a novelty alcoholic beverage during a recent conference on substance abuse revived the debate over ethics and marketing.Nick Costanzo, an owner and vice president of Zippers, the Toledo, Ohio-based manufacturer of trendy alcohol-infused gelatin shots, came under fire from Susan Foster, an officer of the National Center on Addiction and Substance

NEW YORK -- A discussion over suggestive packaging for a novelty alcoholic beverage during a recent conference on substance abuse revived the debate over ethics and marketing.

Nick Costanzo, an owner and vice president of Zippers, the Toledo, Ohio-based manufacturer of trendy alcohol-infused gelatin shots, came under fire from Susan Foster, an officer of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, for the product's packaging.

The exchange took place during the NCASA-sponsored forum, "Combating Substance Abuse in the 21st Century: Positioning the Nation for Progress."

Holding up Zippers' original four-piece, red-and-green packaging, Foster noted how it could appeal to youngsters because of bright red, yellow and green primary colors and because the bottoms of the gelatin cups protrude from the wrap-around band, resembling premade Jell-O snacks -- even though the Zippers shots have no connection to the Jell-O brand, owned by Kraft Foods.

After the session ended, Costanzo showed Foster that Zippers has been redesigned into eight-packs with more sophisticated colors. He also noted the cups are better concealed, and are configured in such a way that they stand upright on a store shelf, like a liquor bottle, and not like children's snacks.

When the panel moderator, Albert R. Hunt, executive editor of the Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau, asked if Zippers is aimed at college students, or marketed on college campuses, Costanzo said that previously, consumers made the so-called Jello shots at home, or consumed them in bars, where no one was quite sure how much alcohol they contained.

"We stepped in, and actually made it safer," he said, to laughter from the audience. "At least it's standardized. Big print on new packaging states it's 12% alcohol. So if you consume some, you know exactly what you're doing. We made it as safe as possible."

NCASA's Foster held up the package, and said she disagreed that the changes constituted responsible marketing.

"These are called Lunchbox Liquors by many people," she said. "It looks like something that appeals to kids. It's very colorful and very much uses soft-porn images, [like the name] Zipper."

Indeed, Zippers' company slogan as makers of "the original gelatin shot" includes the suggestive tagline, "Get Caught in One." As the debate continued, Costanzo also conceded that the original name of the company was FUBAR, an expletive-containing acronym originally coined by soldiers in Vietnam to describe their overuse of alcohol and drugs.

"That shows you the mind-set of the company that is manufacturing these products," said Foster. Such a marketing approach prompted other manufacturers to distance themselves from such behavior. One liquor product manufacturer, Diageo, took pains to state, "Our advertising and marketing materials will not use novelty drinking vessels that have an overtly juvenile appeal [e.g., Jello shots]."

Ethics aside, Zippers' national sales manager, John Vasko, said the new design has helped sales, and the product's popularity continues to grow. It's now authorized in more than 2,200 retail chain stores, including Wal-Mart.