Bowing to criticism, NBC said yesterday that it was ending a three-month-old experiment that would have brought the first liquor advertisements onto national broadcast network television.
In December, NBC became the first broadcast network to head toward running liquor commercials, adopting a set of guidelines under which the makers of distilled spirits could advertise in a way similar to beer and wine makers. Under the guidelines, liquor companies had to run four months of so-called social responsibility ads on subjects like designated drivers before they could run commercials for brands of liquor.
The Guinness UDV division of Diageo, the giant British spirits producer, became the first distiller to advertise under the guidelines, which also limited the content of liquor spots and required that they appear only at night. Diageo started running commercials on Dec. 15 that promote designating a driver when others are drinking and that end with a brief appearance of the logo for its Smirnoff brand of vodka. Those spots were to have been followed in April by Smirnoff commercials.
But the decision to accept liquor commercials in which NBC had not been joined by any of the three other big broadcast networks generated considerable outcries from some members of Congress and federal regulators, the American Medical Association and many public advocacy groups.
The criticism drowned out the support that the change received from some newspaper editorial pages and research organizations like the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute.
"We went into this knowing we'd be plowing new ground and it would not come without controversy," said Alan Wurtzel, president for research at NBC, part of the General Electric Company.
Diageo, in a statement yesterday, said: "We are very proud of our advertising and the support it has received. We will continue our discussions with NBC and other networks as we remain focused on attaining equal access to the airwaves."
Critics of NBC's decision to run liquor ads, who feared that it would encourage children and teenagers to drink, expressed satisfaction at the network's decision against proceeding with the product commercials.
"I'd like to credit NBC with listening to reason," said Joseph A. Califano Jr., chairman and president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University and secretary of health, education and welfare in the Carter administration. "I'm sure they're also listening to Congress."
"Alcohol is the No. 1 drug of abuse by far for America's children," Mr. Califano added, "and keeping hard- liquor ads off broadcast television will help in the effort to curb underage drinking by removing the temptation and glamour."
J. Edward Hill, the incoming chairman of the American Medical Association in Chicago, also lauded the decision. "NBC ought to be commended for a gutsy and socially responsible change of policy," he said, adding: "It's refreshing to see a corporation make a significant economic sacrifice. To be honest, I never dreamed they'd do it."
The medical association was the only opponent NBC cited by name in its announcement.
"NBC's decision doesn't end the story," said George Hacker, director for the Alcohol Policies Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, an advocacy group that fiercely opposed the liquor commercials, because, he said, there is still "the need to look at all alcohol-beverage advertising."
That, Mr. Hacker said, is particularly true with the recent introduction of flavored malt beverages known as alco-pops, which carry the names of liquor brands like Smirnoff, Bacardi and Jack Daniel's but follow the rules for advertising beer rules that are far less restrictive than those for distilled spirits.
The NBC retreat is indicative of the sensitivities that still exist as advertisers and media companies try to determine where the line of public acceptability is and not step over it, or at least not without considerable preparation and explanation. Even as four-letter words begin to be heard on the shows watched by tens of millions of broadcast network viewers, the NBC about-face indicates that there are still some advertising frontiers that will be extremely hard to cross.
Broadcast network executives had hoped that commercials for distilled spirits would become a new source of revenue particularly desirable in an economic downturn because such spots have been running since 1997 on radio stations and networks as well as on more than 400 local TV stations, local cable systems and national cable networks.
The spirits industry dropped its decades-long voluntary ban on running TV and radio commercials in 1997, saying it was outdated to follow different rules from those for brewers and vintners.
Diageo paid NBC to run the social responsibility ads, which the network is doing, and no money is to be given back. Neither NBC nor Diageo has disclosed how much Diageo planned to spend on the social responsibility or the product ads, and no estimate of the cost of yesterday's decision is known.
Peter H. Cressy, chief executive of the Distilled Spirits Council in Washington, commenting on the decision, said, "Policies on alcohol advertising need to be based on facts, not on preconceived notions or misperceptions."
"NBC and Diageo are to be commended for responsible alcohol advertising," he said. "There would have been more social responsibility messages about drinking on television than ever before. Sadly, a few misguided critics, through their attacks on NBC, have undercut this effort."
The social responsibility commercials, which have been broadcast only after 11:30 p.m., will continue running until April 20, when they were scheduled to end. But the next phase, the spots for Smirnoff or other Diageo liquors, will not proceed.
"We said we'd listen" to the reaction to the policy change, Mr. Wurtzel said, "and we did."
"We realize there's a great deal more to discuss," he added. "It's a complicated issue."
As there is no timetable for NBC to proceed with such discussions, it seems highly unlikely that the liquor commercials will appear in the foreseeable future.
STUART ELLIOTT, The New York Times March 21, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.