Liquor ads have found a new home: network TV.
ABC, CBS and NBC in recent months have begun airing spots for Captain Morgan rum, Grey Goose vodka, Jack Daniel's whiskey and other brands on late-night television programs such as "Jimmy Kimmel Live!," the "Late Show With David Letterman" and "Saturday Night Live."
The broadcasters are easing decades-old voluntary bans that limited their national alcohol advertising to beer and wine, which have less alcohol by volume than spirits. The move lets them tap a new stream of revenue as advertisers continue to shift their ad budgets to cable TV, the Internet and online videos. It also highlights the increased public acceptance of hard liquor. Previous attempts to relax the ban sparked protests.
Many liquor companies are increasing their TV marketing budgets by double-digit percentages this year after becoming fixtures on cable networks over the past decade. The exposure from cable ads already has helped the companies lure consumers away from beer. Though brewing companies still spend more than five times as much as liquor companies on TV commercials, beer shipments have slipped in the past three years.
Liquor ads didn't air on American TV until 1996, when a local NBC station in Texas agreed to run a commercial for Crown Royal whiskey. Broadcasters continued to balk at national spirits ads, even as dozens of cable networks began carrying them and broadcast affiliates televised local spots. National broadcasters, however, feared that following suit might trigger a government crackdown that could jeopardize beer ads, especially after Reed Hundt, then-chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, criticized marketing liquor on TV as "dangerous for our kids.''
NBC began running a Smirnoff vodka ad on "Saturday Night Live" in late 2001, as a trial balloon for restricting liquor spots to late-night programs. It ditched the experiment in early 2002 after a barrage of criticism from lawmakers and groups including the American Medical Association, which said the ads would fuel alcohol abuse. A TV Guide poll also found most viewers opposed the ads.
Last November, CBS began running ads for Bacardi Ltd.'s Grey Goose vodka nationally on Mr. Letterman's show. There was little public outcry, and more spirits ads have flowed since. The Bermuda-based liquor company began a TV ad campaign this month for Bacardi OakHeart, a spiced rum, on NBC's "Tonight Show with Jay Leno," "Last Call with Carson Daly," "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" and "Saturday Night Live."
"It's a great development for us,'' said Toby Whitmoyer, managing director of Bacardi's rum brands in the U.S. "It's going to become very much an integral part of our TV media plan."
Brown-Forman Corp. BFB +0.88%began airing ads this month for Southern Comfort, its whiskey-flavored liqueur, on the shows hosted by Messrs. Kimmel, Letterman and Fallon and on "Saturday Night Live." The campaign, also on cable, features a potbellied man in a tiny swimsuit walking down a beach as a voice sings, "I gotta be me."
Brown-Forman, based in Louisville, Ky., is doubling the brand's media budget this fiscal year and TV will make up 80% of its "Whatever's Comfortable" campaign, a reversal from 2009, when Southern Comfort did only online ads. The company also plans to run ads for Jack Daniel's whiskey on broadcast networks later this year.
Broadcasters aren't opening their doors all the way. Liquor ads don't run before 11 p.m., unlike on cable, where many networks allow them anytime. NBC, whose parent is majority-owned by Comcast Corp., CMCSA +0.27%and CBS Corp.'s CBS +0.41%namesake network, require the ads to include a moderation message. Walt Disney DIS +0.36%Co.'s ABC has accepted liquor ads only on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!," 94% of whose viewers are at least 21 years old, higher than the 71.6% standard the liquor industry adheres to in ads. Fox, which like The Wall Street Journal is owned by News Corp., NWSA -0.64%said its broadcast network has changed policy to accept liquor ads, but hasn't run any yet.
.Industry critics say liquor is more dangerous than beer or wine because of its higher alcohol content. Youth exposure to liquor ads on TV already increased 30-fold between 2001 and 2009, driven by cable, according to the Johns Hopkins University's Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth.
"It's basically death by a thousand cuts in terms of voluntary bans. There's a natural race to the bottom," said David Jernigan, the center's director.
Liquor companies say there should be a level playing field for alcohol advertising and that liquor typically is served in smaller portions than beer or wine. The government defines a standard drink as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounce of liquor, with each containing 0.6 ounce of alcohol.
The Federal Trade Commission says there is no basis for treating liquor ads differently than ads for other alcohol. "There's a very high burden with the First Amendment,'' adds Janet Evans, an FTC attorney who monitors alcohol ads.
Liquor has become more readily available to Americans as social norms have changed. Over the past decade, 16 states have approved Sunday liquor sales. Earlier this year, Washington state privatized its liquor stores, increasing the number of outlets where liquor is sold.
In the first quarter of 2012, TV-ad spending by liquor companies jumped 59% from a year earlier to $21.8 million, according to Kantar Media, a unit of WPP PLC. WPP.LN -0.88%That included $1.3 million for broadcast ads, up from nothing a year earlier.
London-based Diageo DGE.LN +1.06%PLC, the world's largest liquor company, plans to increase its overall U.S. advertising budget by at least 30% this fiscal year after scaling back during the recession. Some of the extra money is flowing to broadcast TV. Diageo recently began late-night ads for Ciroc vodka and Captain Morgan.
Pernod Ricard SA RI.FR +0.87%said its TV ad spending in the U.S. more than doubled between 2008 and 2011, even as it continues to increase investments in digital marketing. Since March, the Paris-based company has advertised its Absolut vodka and Jameson whiskey nationally on ABC, CBS and NBC.
Beam Inc., BEAM +0.63%the maker of Jim Beam bourbon, said it will increase its TV ad spending to nearly half its U.S. ad budget this year, up from a third in 2011, and plans to market eight of its liquor brands on TV in 2012, up from one just three years ago. The company has continued to focus on cable, but also is eyeing broadcast TV; its cable ad for Maker's Mark bourbon is narrated by NBC's Mr. Fallon.
Jägermeister, a 78-year-old German herbal liqueur, began running TV ads in the U.S. for the first time in May. Those ads have only run on cable.
Mike Esterl, The Wall Street Journal. August 23, 2012
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