The commercial opens on a picturesque shot of smoky mountains, followed by a montage of simple country scenes: a flat-bed truck filled with barrels rambling down a country lane and a close-up of a weathered and lined old man - all set to a country- style instrumental.
It is a familiar image that has been used to sell Jack Daniel's Tennessee Whiskey in magazine advertising since the 1950's. But it is now appearing in an unfamiliar but more powerful setting - on television.
The hard liquor industry, which has operated under a self-imposed radio and television advertising ban since shortly after the repeal of Prohibition, quietly dropped its own broadcast prohibition in 1996. And since then, slowly and with little fanfare, the nation's top distilled spirits companies - those that make vodka, gin, whiskey, rum and the like - have turned to the airwaves to promote their products.
Though acceptance, especially on television, is sporadic and still limited nationally, such ads are the first signs of the industry's attempt to use all the methods of modern marketing to reverse years of declining sales in the United States.
Liquor companies say their absence from television had become a relic, placing them at a competitive disadvantage against beer and wine, which have advertised on the air for years.
Distillers say the United States - despite its Puritan heritage - is becoming more European in attitude, and the public is now willing to accept liquor advertising on television and radio.
But critics disagree, arguing that there is no public benefit in advertising hard liquor on the airwaves. Instead, they say, to avoid encouraging underage drinking and to protect public health, all alcoholic beverage promotions - beer and wine advertising included - should be limited and more carefully regulated. With this in mind, the industry appears to be moving carefully to avoid attacks.
The national television networks - including most cable networks - continue to ban liquor advertising. And drinking in general is something that television programming tries hard not to glamorize, said Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. But beer drinking, he added, has always been more acceptable. "In the past decade especially, television has been really careful about showing drinking," he said. "In `Cheers,' for example, there was virtually no reference to hard liquor. It was barely served there. But beer has a social lubricant quality to it. Think of Drew Carey or Norm - take away beer and you wouldn't have the same character."
Last year, liquor advertising on television and radio totaled some $18 million, up from virtually nothing in 1995. Compared with the estimated $255 million the liquor industry spent in print advertising, broadcast advertising of liquor is a drop in the bottle. But that is changing. This year two major brands, Captain Morgan Spiced Rum, and Bacardi, began multimillion-dollar campaigns that included television. Other popular brands, like Allied Domecq's Kahlúa and Crown Royal and Chivas Regal, both owned by Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc., continued their nascent TV campaigns.
"TV is the quickest way to build a brand," said Joe Tripodi, chief marketing officer at the Seagram Spirits and Wine Group in New York.
Industry officials said television would help make mixed drinks as socially acceptable as, say, having a beer. "Our Kahlúa ads build brand awareness and reinforce the fact that responsible, moderate consumption of distilled spirits is socially acceptable," said Matt Wiant, a marketing vice president at Allied Domecq Spirits and Wine North America.
Today, Mr. Tripodi said, it is possible to advertise on television and reach an overwhelmingly adult audience - something that was impossible to do years ago when the three major networks reached a mass audience and the market was difficult to segment. The growth of a diverse media marketplace, where programs and whole networks are tailored to adults, is the main reason the industry says it was able to drop its broadcast ad ban.
At the same time, just about every major liquor brand in the country has now adopted radio advertising, said Judy Blatman, spokeswoman at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a Washington trade group known as Discus.
For years, distillers were resentful that beer and wine could advertise on television and radio with little restriction. During the 1980's and much of the 1990's, liquor sales lost a substantial portion of the overall market for alcoholic beverages to wine and beer, though lately liquor sales have risen slightly. "We vie for market share with beer and wine and yet we're being discriminated against," Ms. Blatman said. "All forms of beverage alcohol should be judged by the same criteria. There's no such thing as soft and hard alcohol - alcohol is alcohol."
There is a long precedent in American culture, however, for treating the forms of alcohol differently, said Mr. Thompson of Syracuse. Distillers have found that getting the media to agree to equivalency has not been easy. The National Association of Broadcasters said none of the broadcast television and radio networks accept hard liquor advertising. Most local affiliate and independent stations, which are free to make their own decisions, continue to refuse liquor ads, said Dennis Wharton, an association spokesman in Washington. The Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau said nearly all the cable networks had similar exclusionary policies for hard liquor.
"Marketers want to make it look like there's a huge upswing when we are not hearing that at all," Mr. Wharton said. "Certainly there's been no huge uptick."
Media buyers have been getting on the air by bypassing the networks and buying advertising from local station affiliates or cable system operators. The ads run locally, but often during very popular shows. So while, say, NBC or a national cable network like TNT or MTV Networks declines liquor advertising at the network level, the local station or cable system in each market can make its own determination.
More than 100 local television station affiliates in nearly 90 markets have agreed to take Seagram's advertising. And through local cable system operators that have agreed to accept liquor ads, the company can now reach almost 20 percent of all households with cable television, Mr. Tripodi said. The big city markets remain largely out of reach, he added, but ads for Captain Morgan ran this year on cable systems in Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Ads for the Jack Daniel Distillery have run in 12 local markets on NBC, Fox and CBS stations and have appeared in various cities during hit shows like "E.R." and "West Wing," Phil Lynch, a spokesman for the Brown-Forman Corporation, a wine and spirit maker, said. The ads have run in Miami, Las Vegas and several small markets.
Bacardi's commercials have been picked up by cable systems in 12 states from New York to Texas and have run in local cable markets on ESPN, ESPN2, the Comedy Channel, VH1, and E! Entertainment Television, as well as on MTV during the popular MTV Music Awards, a Bacardi spokeswoman, Laura Baddish, said. The audience for the awards show, she said, had "a higher than average composition of adults." And spots for Kahlúa's low-alcohol line have run in local markets on USA and the Sci-Fi Channel, said Mr. Wiant of Allied Domecq.
Local radio has clearly been a benefactor. Radio, traditionally less of a medium for reaching children, has been more willing to accept liquor advertising, said Jim Porcarelli, director of client services at Grey Global's MediaCom, a media buying firm in New York that is a unit of the Grey Global Group. Competitive Media Reporting said liquor companies spent about $15 million on ads in local markets around the country last year, up from $11.5 million in 1998. Seagram said it had run advertising on radio stations in 200 of the 300 top national markets in the country. Discus said most of the 2,000 broadcast outlets that had accepted liquor advertising since the ban was dropped four years ago were radio stations.
"TV has been on the radar of political watchdog groups because of its higher degree of visibility," Mr. Porcarelli said. "Radio has been less of an issue."
Advertisers say they have received few complaints so far.
Jim Rogers, chairman of the Sunbelt Communications Company, which owns eight television stations - mostly NBC affiliates - in Idaho, Arizona, Montana and Nevada, said he began accepting liquor commercials from Seagram and Jack Daniel's a year ago. The commercials have run locally during prime time, including during "Dateline" and the Olympics, he said.
But liquor ads are by no means common yet on television, and the lack of an outcry does not mean the public supports such advertising, said George Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policies Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. According to a 1998 national poll by Michigan State University, half the public favors banning liquor commercials on television, the center said.
Mr. Hacker said nationwide advertising of liquor on TV would be a "public health disaster." But as it spreads in local markets, he said, he hopes it will serve as a signal to re- examine all alcoholic beverage advertising, especially beer advertising and promotions.
Mr. Hacker does not expect the networks to ever allow liquor advertising, saying they do not want to spur a full-scale review of all alcohol advertising.
By contrast, "that might be one motivation behind the liquor companies," Mr. Hacker added. "They'd just as soon cut beer down to size to create an equal playing field."
But marketers say the American public will accept the idea of liquor advertising as long as it is done responsibly. Discus requires that at least 50 percent of an audience for a commercial be 21 or older.
Some companies impose other restrictions as well. Allied Domecq said it had a policy of not using models in ads who are, or appear to be, under 25. To help deflect any backlash, liquor companies also devote a significant part of their advertising budget to promoting responsible drinking.
But media outlets also restrict access. Many stations will not accept advertising until after 9, 10 or 11 p.m., and certain formats, like contemporary hit radio, which aim at 12- to 24-year-old listeners, are not used, said Eric Bethel, senior vice president at Optimedia in New York, a media buying firm that is a unit of the Publicis Groupe.
"The media is more open to liquor advertising than it has been in the past, but that window is still very, very small, and it's very haphazard," Mr. Bethel said. "You may have a CBS affiliate in one market but then not in 10 other markets. It's a nightmare having to buy it."
Patricia Winters Lauro, The New York Times. December 7, 2000
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