Puritans have long been viewed as people who couldn’t stand the thought of anyone anywhere having a good time. The original Puritans really weren’t that way, but today the world seems to be full of such killjoys.
In Dallas, Texas, the local Starplex amphitheater has sold naming rights to United Distillers & Vintners, a unit of Britain’s Diageo PLC that controls one-fifth of the U.S. distilled-spirits market.
From the popular reaction, one would think that Colombian drug lords had taken over the city. Dallas City Councilman Leo Chaney told the Dallas Morning News: “My first reaction is to organize the community and picket and protest in front of the Starplex.”
Exactly why is hard to fathom. Chaney complained that the name — the Smirnoff Music Centre — countered the attempt “to deal with the perception that the South Dallas/Fair Park area is overrun by liquor establishments.” Yet the area where the Starplex is located either is or isn’t so overrun. The Centre’s name is irrelevant.
A number of other people complained about the “message.” One parent said simply: “I don’t think they ought to name a facility with something that everybody associates with alcohol.” But alcohol is legal to sell. It is legal to advertise. It is legal to drink. What, then, is wrong with putting the name of Smirnoff, a flavored malt beverage, on a building?
Adults have a right to learn about the availability of a legal product. There’s no difference in principle between advertising in a magazine, on television, on a billboard or through a building’s name.
Moreover, there’s no reason to believe that any of these is likely to create a surge in drinking. Most people don’t have to be lobbied to enjoy alcohol. They do have to be prodded to choose a particular maker’s brand. Thus, the Smirnoff Music Centre is more likely to affect brand preferences than consumption levels.
The last refuge of the Texas puritans is that some children will see the name. By that logic, nothing that is unavailable to children — smoking cigarettes, making contracts, driving autos, getting tattoos, going bungee jumping — should be advertised anywhere anytime. If even one child is present, everyone should be treated as a child.
That, of course, would eliminate the illusion that we live in a free society. The goal should not be to hide from minors images of the rights of adulthood, but to prepare children to exercise those rights intelligently when they become adults.
Indeed, UDV does not advertise to audiences with less than 70 percent adults. Fewer than one in 10 Starplex patrons is under 21.
Given the controversy, one might think that Smirnoff was the first facility to be named after an alcohol producer. However, the names Bud Light, Busch, Coors and Molson adorn amphitheaters and stadiums in several cities.
A similar controversy erupted several years ago when Seagram’s announced that it planned to advertise whiskey on television. Critics streamed forth — while ignoring the beer advertising that pervades TV. Yet alcohol is alcohol: All standard drinks include roughly the same amount of alcohol, 14.5 grams.
If the Dallas protesters are really serious, they should also attack other Starplex sponsors. There is Coors Brewing Company, which sells, yes, alcohol. Ben & Jerry’s, which foists cholesterol-rich ice cream on America’s overweight population. And the Texas Lottery, which inveigles poor people into wasting their money on the ripoff that masquerades as state-sponsored gambling.
UDV has attempted to minimize such problems, participating in initiatives that address drunken and underage driving. Nothing suggests that UDV is anything other than a responsible provider of a perfectly moral and legal product.
It’s hard to know whether the Smirnoff Music Centre is worth the $6 million spent by UDV. But that is the company’s problem. UDV has a right to buy the naming rights to the amphitheater.
Freedom is precious. Among its greatest enemies are well-intended busybodies who desire to treat the rest of us like children. If they succeed, we will all lose.
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