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After criticism, NBC calls off liquor ads

NBC said Wednesday that it will not run commercials for liquor ads after all, reversing a decision it made last fall to break a decades-old taboo in TV broadcasting.

In December, NBC signed a multimillion-dollar advertising contract with Diageo's U.S. subsidiary, Guinness UDV. The network has not run any product spots, but it had carried public-service commercials featuring Smirnoff, a Diageo brand, that promoted socially responsible drinking.

The network plans to run its own public-service spots in the future.

NBC would not say why it's pulling out of the deal, but pressure from Congress, beer advertisers and consumer and health advocates all helped. Beer and wine are advertised on television.

NBC's statement said that House and Senate committees had asked it to reconsider its policy.

"We have agreed to do that. We are therefore ending the first phase of branded social responsibility advertising on our network and will not proceed into the next phase of carrying product advertising for distilled spirits," NBC said.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee led by Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., and spurred by one of the biggest opponents to the ads, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., was threatening to hold a hearing on NBC's ad policy later this year.

Beer companies pressed NBC not to accept hard liquor ads. They argued that advertising standards for liquor should be stricter than for beer, which has less alcohol than spirits.

If those standards were extended to all alcoholic products, beer could have been subject to the same scrutiny that required Diageo ads to run after 9 p.m. to an audience in which at least 85% of viewers are 21 or older. "Part of what's going on is share of alcohol," says Benj Steinman, editor of Beer Marketer's Insights, a beer industry newsletter. "Distillers want to move in on beer's turf, and beer wants to protect its turf. You can cloak it as much as you want in corporate responsibility, but it's a competitive battle."

And with ad spending starting to look up, NBC might have felt the deal was not worth the heat.

"Since advertising is improving, it will be easier to replace than they would have thought two months ago," says Michael Russell, a media analyst at Morgan Stanley, who projects a 1.4% bump in all ad revenue this year.

Other networks have not accepted liquor ads.

The NBC-Diageo deal included an agreement for at least four months of public-service commercials that were intended to quiet objections.

"Diageo's marketing and advertising sets the highest standards of social responsibility in the industry," Diageo says. "We will continue our discussions with NBC and other networks as we remain focused on attaining equal access to the airwaves."


Theresa Howard, USA TODAY. March 20, 2002

Copyright © 2002 USA TODAY. All rights reserved.