Lawmaker wants more transparency in PA liquor advertising

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board has that third word in its name for a reason – the agency was put in place after Prohibition to give the state a firm hand on where and when Pennsylvanians get their booze.

That control takes two forms. On one hand, the PLCB runs all liquor stores in the state, literally controlling the flow of wine and spirits to consumers. On the other, it’s charged with granting licenses to bars, restaurants, beer distributors and anyone else who wants to sell alcohol.

Both roles are meant to ensure that when alcohol and people mix in the Keystone State, it only happens in a safe, limited way.

But the PLCB is not only about control – it’s also a business, after all.

Like most businesses, the PLCB uses advertising to boost its bottom line, creating an odd paradox where the same agency charged with controlling alcohol in the name of safety is also promoting the purchase, and thus the consumption, of alcohol.

Lawmakers and think tankers who favor privatizing the PLCB have gleefully pointed out that contradiction in hearings and interviews for the last several years, but one Republican wants to take the issue to the next level this fall.

“Using tax dollars on ads to glamorize and encourage alcohol consumption, while at the same time using other tax dollars on ads to curb alcohol abuse is not only contradictory, it’s wrongheaded and inefficient,” said state Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Cumberland, in a statement this week.

Bloom has introduced a bill to require all PLCB advertising efforts to include a statement reading “this advertising was paid for by you, the taxpayers of PA.”

The PLCB has responded to criticism of advertising in the past by pointing out its ad budget is paid for by revenues, not tax dollars. PLCB officials say advertising has been part of the reason why liquor stores have turned record profits in recent years.

But the board has landed in hot water over the content of its ads on a few occasions.

A 2011 ad encouraging people to watch how much they drink portrayed a girl slumped on a bathroom floor with her underwear around her ankles and the tagline “She didn’t want to, but she couldn’t say no.” Anti-rape activists and feminist groups pounced on the ad for “blaming the victim,” and it ended up plastered on national sites like Huffington Post and Jezebel.

Other ads – like a 2010 ad suggesting consumers buy mom a bottle of vodka for Mother’s Day and a series of promos for the PLCB’s in-house “Totally Naked” brand wine – have elicited reactions ranging from chuckles to condemnations.

Bloom said taxpayers should be more aware of the contradiction that exists at the heart of the state-run liquor system.