may scuttle NBC's plan to accept hard liquor commercials
New York Times
months ago, NBC became the first broadcast network to accept
for hard liquor like vodka, rum or whiskey. But an outcry
from members of Congress and advocacy organizations opposed
to expanding ads for distilled spirits may scuttle the effort.
complaints could lead to Congressional hearings aimed at producing
a bill banning broadcast spots for hard liquor, but it may
not stop there. The opponents lined up against NBC may seek
to roll back a decision in 1996 by the trade organization
for liquor marketers, the Distilled Spirits Council of the
United States, to lift a voluntary ban against such commercials.
The council's about-face enabled makers of hard liquor to
join marketers of beer, wine, malt-based coolers and other
alcoholic beverages in using television to sell their wares.
Since then, liquor spots have run tens of thousands of times
on hundreds of local TV stations and cable systems, as well
as on national cable networks. But none had appeared on broadcast
TV networks until Dec. 15, when a spot promoting designated
drivers on behalf of the Smirnoff vodka brand sold by Guinness
UDV ran on "Saturday Night Live" on NBC.
factor that may determine whether other liquor companies follow
Guinness onto broadcast network TV is a timetable set by NBC.
Before NBC accepts commercials that sell specific brands,
the liquor sponsor must run four months of spots centered
on social responsibility issues like drinking moderately.
That's why the Guinness UDV spot appearing on NBC since Dec.
15 mentions Smirnoff only in passing and promotes designating
a driver before going out to drink.
the four months are over, and NBC starts running the product
spots, the opponents may pounce.
jump to broadcast television is opposed by people who are
upset at what they say is the widening exposure of liquor
commercials to children, and they were galvanized into action.
They include some members of both parties in the House of
Representatives and federal regulators, the incoming chairman
of the American Medical Association and the heads of advocacy
groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
anticipated that something bad was going to happen soon,"
said George Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policies Project
at the science center in Washington. As NBC becomes "the
subject of mounting public criticism and pressure, the potential
for hearings is good," he said.
the extent of the anger, the popular culture began weighing
in, too. The comic strip "Doonesbury" showed a child
watching an episode of the NBC sitcom "Frasier"
sponsored by Wild Turkey bourbon. An editorial cartoonist,
Mike Thompson, suggested that NBC was "hittin' the hard
stuff" to defray the cost of the new contract for the
"Today" host Katie Couric.
"The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," a show on which
NBC has run the Smirnoff commercial, Jay Leno even bit the
hands that feed him, asserting that the network's initials
would now stand for "Nothing But Cocktails."
complaints seem to have encouraged the other national broadcastersABC,
CBS and Foxto keep intact, at least for now, their policies
against accepting pitches for hard liquor. At the same time,
no other liquor company has followed Guinness UDV onto NBC,
though network executives say they are in discussions with
complaints appear to have convinced NBC and Guinness UDVa
division of Diageo that also sells Johnnie Walker Scotch whiskey
and Captain Morgan rumto restrict the initial commercial's
appearance. The spot, created by two agencies, the Glover
Park Group and Westhill Partners, has run only after 11:30
p.m.though under guidelines for liquor ads NBC adopted
last month it could also appear from 9 to 11 p.m.
taken a measured and steady approach to increasing our presence
on television," said Ted Hissey, senior vice president
for marketing at Guinness UDV in Stamford, Conn. "We
want to do this in the right way, a responsible way, with
pretty strict guidelines."
NBC executives responsible for formulating the guidelines19
points meant to limit the exposure to and appeal of liquor
commercials to children and teenagers -- are even signaling
they may be amenable to tightening the rules in response to
the complaints of critics.
recognized there would not be universal agreement," said
Randy Falco, president at the NBC Television Network division
of NBC in New York, part of the General Electric Company.
"The goal is to put together a win-win situation."
not pretending we have all the answers," he added. "The
standards are a living, breathing document. If something is
out of context, we change it."
another sign that NBC is proceeding cautiously, Alan Wurtzel,
president for research at the network, said that it would
take the content of even late-night shows into account when
considering whether to run liquor commercials.
instance, Mr. Wurtzel said, if an episode of "Saturday
Night Live" is to have a host like the singer Britney
Spears "we wouldn't approve the spot in that show"
because presumably the viewers would be younger than usual.
will NBC run the Guinness UDV commercial during any coverage
of the Winter Olympics, he added, even after 11:30 p.m., because
the sports content may appeal to younger viewers. (Because
the Olympics so dominates NBC's schedule this month, the commercial
is on hiatus for now.)
the limits will be sufficient to assuage the opponents is
fight against the commercials "is going to take time,
no question about it," said Joseph A. Califano Jr., president
of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at
Columbia University in New York and a former Secretary of
Health, Education and Welfare under President Jimmy Carter.
"But this is a battle people will not shirk from.
isn't working," he added. "We need legislation or
rules from the Federal Communications Commission."
F.C.C., however, seems unlikely to intervene as only one commissioner,
Michael J. Copps, came out against NBC's decision, castigating
it as "a race to the bottom."
prospects for legislation are clouded by the coincidence that
the House committee that oversees commerce, which has jurisdiction
in this matter, also oversees energy -- meaning its members
are in the thick of the investigations of the Enron Corporation.
chairman of the committee, Representative Billy Tauzin, a
Republican from Louisiana, thinks there is "a constitutional
right to run the ads," said his spokesman, Ken Johnson,
"but make no mistake, if the industry pushes the envelope,
we won't be afraid to put our foot down."
industry, needless to say, sees no need for federal intervention.
have had a very small amount of Congressional interest,"
said Peter H. Cressy, president and chief executive at the
Distilled Spirits Council in Washington. "It is important
for us to be on television, to be recognized as part of a
healthy, normal lifestyle for those who choose to drink."
to go on seemed appropriate when there was one television
set in the house and the family gathered around it,"
he added. "But the longer we were off the air, the more
we 'denormalized' our product, making ourselves look different"
from other alcoholic beverages on TV.
are estimates that if all four national broadcasters accepted
liquor commercials, they could become an advertising category
with annual spending of $300 million. That is small compared
with the networks' total estimated annual revenue of $12 billion
to $14 billion, but more than a drop in the bucket during
the toughest ad market in decades.
desire to increase revenue in a soft economy is clearly contributing
to the arrival of liquor on broadcast TV, said David Verklin,
chief executive at the Carat North America division of Carat
in New York, part of the Aegis Group.
the "creeping toward the center to get liquor on mainstream
television" is also "an inexorable part of the trend
to loosen what can and can't appear on TV," he added.
His agency -- recently named to buy advertising for the American
division of Pernod Ricard for brands like Seagram's Gin --
is considering whether the benefits of advertising on broadcast
television would outweigh the costs both financially and in
possible negative publicity.
is not the right thing to do for children," said Dr.
J. Edward Hill, the incoming chairman of the American Medical
Association in Chicago. "We've blamed everybody for alcohol
abuse, everyone but the alcohol industry."