Heileman came under fire last year from public health advocates and African- American religious and community leaders for introducing PowerMaster, a malt liquor with the highest alcohol content of any malt on the market. Heileman primarily pushed PowerMaster in African-American neighborhoods. In July 1991, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) ruled that the "PowerMaster" name violated federal rules that prohibit alcohol container labels or product advertisements from touting the strength of a product. Heileman pulled PowerMaster off the market in the wake of the BATF decision and the public furor sparked by Heileman's blatantly racist marketing strategy [see Corporate Crime and Violence in Review," Multinational Monitor, December 1991 ].
But Heileman has not given up on selling a potent product to a minority community already plagued by alcohol-related disease. Now, says Brown, "They are re- packaging [PowerMaster], but they are after the same market."
The high-alcohol formulation of Heileman's Colt 45 Premium, currently in liquor stores in Philadelphia and soon to be sold in Detroit, is at least similar to PowerMaster's. BATF reported in early May that the two products have identical formulations, but now a spokesperson says that the agency may not have had complete information in making that determination, and that information concerning similarities in the products' formulations is currently "not disclosable." The company has maintained that the formulations are not identical.
Colt Premium is being sold in the old PowerMaster container - a black can emblazoned with a red horse. And it does have a similarly high alcohol content: malt liquors typically contain about 4.5 percent alcohol, compared to 3.5 or 4 percent for other beers. Colt Premium has an alcohol content of 5.9 percent.
Critics also charge that Heileman is marketing Colt Premium the same way it marketed PowerMaster: by targeting low-income, male African-Americans. The malt's slogan - "Be A Premium Player" - and the can itself are designed to serve as "enticements or inducements" for young, black males to try the product, says Brown, who points out that the word "player" is often associated with inner-city gangs. Brown notes that Colt 45 Premium will also be associated with another Heileman brew, the less potent Colt 45, which is pushed in advertisements by popular African-American celebrities such as Billy Dee Williams.
Heileman could not be reached for comment on charges that it is targeting young, black males with a uniquely potent malt liquor.
Brown says that Heileman is targeting a community that already suffers a "disproportionate burden of alcohol-related diseases and social problems." African- Americans account for 18 percent of the clients in alcohol treatment programs, yet make up only 12 percent of the U.S. population. African-Americans in the United States are also twice as likely as whites to die of chronic liver disease or cirrhosis. David Grant of the Minneapolis-based Institute on Black Chemical Abuse says, "The people who are being hit the hardest by high-octane alcoholic beverages are the very market for which these products are intended."
Grant says that people of color working to stem substance abuse in their communities "are disgusted" by Heileman's strategy. "The same kind of racism is at work here that is at work in society as a whole," says Grant. "It sees black life and the lives of other people of color as intrinsically less valuable than the lives of European-Americans."
Heileman is after other minority populations as well. Critics, including Surgeon General Antonia Novello, who also spoke out against PowerMaster, say that the company is employing a racist strategy to market yet another high-alcohol malt liquor to Native Americans. Brown says that the recently introduced Crazy Horse malt liquor "is highly attractive to Native American kids," at least in part because of the images of rebellion associated with the historical figure of Crazy Horse. Grant calls the Crazy Horse campaign "a cynical attempt to use a very similar marketing approach" which "ties the use of the product in with a celebration of Native American heritage." Grant adds, "If Crazy Horse were alive today, he would be leading the demonstrations against the product" because he "hated anything that denigrated Indian culture."
Members of Philadelphia's health and religious communities are leading the fight against PowerMaster. Brown, in particular, is experienced in fighting racist corporate marketing, having led the campaign against R.J. Reynolds when the company tried to market its Uptown cigarette exclusively to African-Americans. Reynolds eventually cancelled the product.
Grant is heartened by the success of Brown and other minority leaders whose work led to the dumping of both Uptown and PowerMaster. "We are going to remain vigilant" in fighting Colt Premium and Crazy Horse, he says. "We are not powerless here."
- Holley Knaus