Want to Lower the Drinking Age? Hope You Like Spam

Presidents who called for debate opened their inboxes last week to hundreds of messages originating from a MADD Web form.
August 25, 2008

The Amethyst Initiative -- a pledge by over 100 college presidents to publicly re-examine the wisdom of keeping the national drinking age at 21 -- generated noticeable buzz in the media last week, as students and parents gawked at the apparent novelty of higher education leaders agreeing with teenagers that yes, if they had their way, beer and liquor would be easier, not harder, for legal adults to procure.

As is typically the case with movements that seek to ease restrictions on alcohol, one of the first groups to challenge the initiative was Mothers Against Drunk Driving. MADD’s pushback began, like Amethyst’s, as a media blitz. Beyond the typical press releases and statements from spokesmen, though, it followed the strategy of many interest groups and political action committees by encouraging concerned citizens to write letters to college presidents listed as signatories to the initiative.

Lots of letters. Lots of electronic letters.

At MADD’s Web site, any visitor can enter his or her name and address into a form that will automatically send a ready-made e-mail message to all of the Amethyst signatories. As a result, presidents have reported receiving hundreds of the same message, urging them to “disengage from the list of signatories and to instead join MADD and our partners in the public health community in saving lives and supporting the 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age.”

Included in the form letter are statistics on public support for the current drinking age, and a bullet point that says: “More than half say they are less likely to vote for a state representative who supports lowering the legal limit or send their children to colleges or universities with ‘party school’ reputations.”

Starting late Thursday, Dickinson College president William Durden began receiving hundreds of the same message, to the point where there was “interference, but a manageable one,” said Christine Dugan, the college's director of media relations.

The New York Timesreported late last week that already two presidents, under public pressure, had rescinded their names from the list of signatories. John McCardell, the former president of Middlebury College who spearheaded the Amethyst effort, said he was aware of the campaign but didn’t believe it was having the desired effect: Contrary to the presidents of Morehouse College and Georgia Southwestern State University, he said, 20 others have since added their names to the list.

Laura Dean-Mooney, MADD’s national president, said in an interview that the group was “encouraging the public to act by e-mailing their presidents” and “exercising their right in speaking out.” She cited one parent whose e-mails to the Spelman College president at first elicited only form letters, but who persisted until she finally received a personal response.

Both sides of the debate gain efficiency by using form letters, Dean-Mooney said, but ultimately they “encourage dialogue with some persistence on both sides.”

She added: “We’re certainly not trying to tie up their e-mail inboxes, that’s certainly not the point.”


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