Mixed Drink Mondays. Wine Wednesdays. Brewing Thursdays. Yes, these are clever marketing tools used to attract customers to restaurants and bars. But, more notably, their use is restricted in the commonwealth of Virginia.
Yes, you read that right. Virginia bars and restaurants are prohibited from using these advertising gimmicks outside of their establishments — such as on social media or in the local newspaper. Instead, potential patrons are bombarded with generic terminology like “happy hour” or “drink special” in an uphill attempt to draw consumer dollars. But that’s not where the foolishness ends.
Virginia restaurants and bars are also forbidden from listing the specific drink prices in their advertisements — leaving consumers guessing what the “drink special” actually is. These rules are an attack on consumer choice and a hindrance to state businesses. One would expect policies like these in the Prohibition era, but not in 21st century Virginia.
If Virginia restaurants and bars offer drink deals, they should also be allowed to advertise them freely and in a reasonable way without penalty — not be subject to a week-long alcohol license suspension and up to $500 in fines for a first offense. These alcohol policies are nonsensical, which begs the question: What was their intended purpose to begin with? Are they to curb overconsumption or encourage a healthier lifestyle?
Well, if so, the measures were poorly designed.
Simply forcing the adoption of watered-down advertising will do little to mitigate the occurrences of binge drinking — which is what has been proven to negatively impact one’s health. Hardcore problem drinkers are going to overindulge with or without colorful advertising and price listings.
Instead, the restrictions have backfired. Not only do they limit consumer choice, but they cripple the ability of Virginia bars and restaurants to stand out among competitors and attract customers — especially those in the northern part of the state that also have to directly compete with a wide array of other options just across the Potomac that aren’t held to the same antiquated standards.
Fortunately, these out-of-touch policies are being challenged in court. Virginia restaurateur Geoff Tracy recently filed a federal lawsuit against these happy hour advertisement laws, claiming a First Amendment violation. In part, he argues that the censorship of advertising is essentially a censorship of speech.
The legal challenge follows a similar pattern that has been playing out across the country. Nonsensical alcohol laws — many of them leftover from the Prohibition era — are being removed and replaced by a pro-consumer and pro-business environment. Take for example last year’s elimination of Utah’s Zion Curtain regulation — which mandated the erection of a barrier that shielded the mixing of alcoholic drinks from the view of patrons. And who could forget the cut in alcohol excise taxes that were included in last year’s federal tax relief bill, which has spurred growth in distilleries, wineries, and breweries alike?
It shouldn’t be a newsflash for Virginia policy officials, but Prohibition was repealed roughly 85 years ago. It’s high time that state alcohol policies acknowledge that fact and liberate happy hour advertisements from government mandate.
Jackson Shedelbower is the communications director of the American Beverage Institute.