Five years after some liquor companies began producing television commercials for alcoholic beverages like vodka, cordials, rum, liqueurs and Scotch whiskey, a large national broadcast network has agreed to begin accepting those spots.
NBC, part of the General Electric Company, said yesterday that it would become the first of the four biggest broadcast networks to accept commercials for distilled spirits, so-called hard liquor, since liquor marketers lifted a voluntary ban against such spots in 1996. But the commercials must adhere to a long list of stipulations. They will appear only after 9 p.m., for instance; the actors in them must all be at least 30 years of age; and the liquor makers must first run for four months a series of social-responsibility messages on subjects like designated drivers and drinking moderately before they can run commercials for their distilled-spirits brands.
People who oppose the move say they are concerned that the commercials could be easily watched by youngsters.
"This is more than the camel's nose under the tent," said George Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policies Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group in Washington. "It's the first foot forward that will result down the line to opening the door for hard-liquor ads looking like beer ads."
The decision by NBC, which takes effect with a commercial from the Guinness UDV division of Diageo that is scheduled to run tomorrow on "Saturday Night Live," comes as TV networks seek to reverse a steep revenue decline that began in the spring and accelerated after Sept. 11.
The spending for the four-month series of commercials that Guinness UDV will run before the product spots is being called a multimillion- dollar campaign; neither the company nor NBC would be more specific.
Plans call for the commercial to be shown tomorrow night to promote designating a driver before drinking and end with the words "From your friends at Smirnoff," the best-selling Guinness UDV brand of vodka.
The NBC decision represents a major victory for liquor marketers seeking to gain access to the powerful advertising medium of television along with their traditional outlets like print ads and promotions.
"We're very pleased we have the opportunity to gain the efficiencies in our advertising and marketing programs," said Gary Galanis, a spokesman for Guinness UDV in Stamford, Conn.
Already, several national cable TV networks and an estimated 200 to 300 local TV stations - some owned by the broadcast networks like NBC - accept commercials for vodka, Scotch whiskey and rum as well as for lower-alcohol products like liqueurs and blended specialty drinks.
The newsletter Television Digest reported, for instance, that the TV station owned by NBC in Providence, R.I., WJAR, runs commercials for Baileys Original Irish Cream liqueur, sold by Guinness UDV. Hard- liquor brands sold by Guinness UDV that have run TV commercials so far include José Cuervo tequila, Malibu rum, Tanqueray gin and Johnnie Walker Black Scotch whiskey.
"There's a momentum gathering here," said Randy Falco, president for the NBC Television Network division of NBC in New York. "We thought we'd get in front of it" with "a pretty strict set of guidelines."
"This is obviously a sensitive subject," he added, but as for any concerns for potential abuse, "the standards speak for themselves, particularly as they relate to young people."
Beer and wine advertising has been on television since the medium carried commercials. There were no such spots for liquor from 1948, when the distilled spirits industry introduced its voluntary ban, until that ban was lifted in November 1996.
When the ban was lifted, some members of Congress and federal regulators sought to have it reinstated or made into law. Those efforts faded as the end of the ban brought no flood of liquor commercials onto the broadcast networks; in addition, the Federal Trade Commission reminded critics that any spots for hard liquor would be subject to the same standards and scrutiny as all other ads.
According to CMR, a division of Taylor Nelson Sofres that tracks advertising spending, in the first nine months of 2001, beer makers spent $606.7 million on local and national broadcast and cable television commercials, while makers of wine and wine coolers spent $25.4 million and liquor makers spent $17.1 million.
By comparison, the liquor companies spent $194.9 million to advertise in magazines in the first nine months of 2001, according to the Publishers Information Bureau in New York, an affiliate of the Magazine Publishers of America.
The guidelines under which Guinness UDV will advertise on NBC ought to satisfy the critics, Mr. Galanis said, because "it's a solid, strict code." The 19 stipulations occupy two pages and include a provision that the commercials may appear only on programs with audiences in which a minimum of 85 percent of viewers are 21 and older. In addition, the spots must not promote distilled alcohol products "as a `mark of adulthood' or `rite of passage' " and may not show or represent consumption on camera.
At the end of the four-month period during which the hard-liquor advertisers can run only social-responsibility spots, the guidelines state, one out of every five of the actual product pitches they run must still be devoted to messages on issues like drinking responsibly and "alcohol- related health consequences."
"We've been approached in the past" by marketers of hard liquor, Mr. Falco, the NBC executive, said. But until Guinness UDV began talking to NBC several months ago, "we never had real, serious discussions" with a company willing to "work with us on the protocols and standards" outlined under the guidelines, he said.
Mr. Galanis at Guinness UDV said that NBC was the first broadcast network with which his company discussed the campaign, adding that "we were able to work with NBC to reach a mutual agreement to move forward together and establish a new set of standards."
In some instances, the NBC guidelines reflected standards followed by Guinness UDV, he added, while in other instances the network standards are stricter - like the stipulation that at least 85 percent of viewers must be 21 and older.
After having the guidelines described to him, Mr. Hacker, the consumer advocate, said the 85 percent stipulation "is not a bad standard" and described it as "a step forward."
He said he was concerned, however, about the spread of commercials for hard liquor to broadcast television networks "because of their nature, their broad audience, which is very different from running spots on golf matches or equestrian events" shown on cable networks "where the audience can be carefully targeted."
Mr. Hacker also questioned the device of having the commercials signed with a brand name rather than a corporate name.
"Whether it's a supposed responsibility ad or not," Mr. Hacker said, "it's still going to be branded." He also said he would like to see "messages that tell the true story" about drinking "that are approved by public health agencies" rather than liquor company executives.
The commercial that is to run on "Saturday Night Live" was created by two agencies, Glover Park and Westhill Media Partners, which have offices in New York and Washington. Mr. Falco and Mr. Galanis said it would show a hand turning over one of five glasses on a bar, next to a set of car keys, to promote the idea that one person in a group ought to be deemed a designated driver.
As for the three other big broadcast networks, they had similar responses to NBC's decision. Spokesmen for ABC, CBS and Fox Broadcasting all said they had no plans now to change their policies against accepting liquor commercials.
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. December 14, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.