OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

In an era when some advertisers deliberately seek to demarcate the line between acceptable content and alienating consumers, how far is too far? One marketer, to its shock, has found out the hard way.

The Boston Beer Company, a successful boutique brewer, is reeling from the backlash against a backfiring promotional stunt on a popular radio show, which threatens to jeopardise sales of its flagship Samuel Adams Boston Lager brand. The show, heard by an estimated ten million listeners daily in 18 major markets, originated from WNEW-FM, a New York station owned by the media giant Viacom, which also is forced to deal with the fallout.

The stunt was the brainchild of the hosts of the hit afternoon Opie and Anthony Show, Gregg (Opie) Hughes and Anthony Cumia, among the most outrageous "shock jocks on American radio. As part of an annual contest called "Sex for Sam", the station broadcast live reports of listeners hooking up in public places. The coupling couples would score by scoring, amassing points to win a trip to visit the brewery of Boston Beer - a regular WNEW advertiser - for a concert.

Earlier in the contest, now in its third year, Opie and Anthony Show listeners had made the beast with two backs in such locales as department stores and train stations. Then, on 15 August, the station broadcast a couple having sex in the vestibule of St Patrick's Cathedral, near Catholics worshipping on a feast day. Listeners heard a producer of the show narrate the stunt over his cell phone, as if it were a baseball game.

This time, though, Opie and Anthony struck out. The amorous contestants were arrested, as was the producer. The ensuing firestorm was fierce even by the standards of over-the-top New York media coverage. The Catholic League filed an indecency complaint, demanding the station's valuable licence be revoked and WNEW's owner, Infinity Broadcasting Corporation, fined. After receiving hundreds of similar complaints, the Federal Communications Commission ordered an investigation.

Opie and Anthony, yanked off the air after the stunt, were fired and their show cancelled by Infinity, which also suspended WNEW's general manager and programme director. That mollified the Catholic League and the FCC, but Boston Beer was still feeling the heat, mostly because Jim Koch, the brewer's chairman, was in the studio talking with Opie and Anthony as the stunt took place - at least the third time he had been on hand at the same time that the public sex went on.

Even though Boston Beer insisted it didn't sponsor the promotion, Koch issued an apology online, then made apologetic calls to owners of bars in the company's Boston hometown, where many Catholics live, then scheduled contrite ads to run in Boston's two major newspapers. Whether all that will squelch a burgeoning boycott of Samuel Adams by Boston barkeeps remains to be seen.

Marketers such as Boston Beer gamble that hooking up with shock jocks such as Opie and Anthony will pay off because their mad antics, which typically draw the younger male consumers advertisers crave, don't usually come to the attention of the older, mainstream types who are apt to complain about racism, sexism, vulgar language or blasphemy.

But if it isn't nice to fool Mother Nature, as a character warned in a classic American margarine commercial, it sure isn't nice to fool around in the house of the Heavenly Father.

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