Hard liquor ads on the rocks
NBC bows to pressure from government, industry, watchdogs
By Paige Albiniak -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/24/2002 7:00:00 PM
Pushed by Congress, public-interest groups, and the beer and wine industries, NBC last week pulled back on its plan to air hard-liquor ads.
For four months, the network had been running social-responsibility ads from Guinness UDV for its Smirnoff brand in preparation for that company's hard-liquor ads. But, now, the network has dropped those plans, at least temporarily. It will still run alcohol-related PSAs, however, and the Smirnoff PSAs are expected to finish their flight, which ends in mid-April.
Some members of Congress had voiced their strong opposition to the idea—particularly Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.)—but no hearings had been held and no legislation had been introduced that would have prevented NBC from running the ads.
Two weeks ago, however, key members of both the House and Senate Commerce Committees asked NBC to its liquor ad plan.
The committee chairmen apparently asked the network to step back on liquor advertising because the issue was becoming a political hornet's nest.
"From a constitutional standpoint, NBC appeared to be on solid ground," said Ken Johnson, spokesman for Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "From a public-perception standpoint, the earth was beginning to shake a little bit. People on Capitol Hill were openly grumbling, so we asked NBC to reassess their position."
"The other networks didn't write in to back up NBC, and they were kind of standing out there alone announcing that they were going to accept these ads," Tauzin said. "That put NBC in a difficult position."
The Distilled Spirits Council, which was pushing hard for the ads, was disappointed with NBC's decision.
"It's unfortunate, but only a temporary setback for responsible alcohol advertising and equal treatment of distilled spirits, beer and wine," said Distilled Spirits Council President Peter Cressy.
Congressional opponents, who don't expect NBC's decision to be temporary, welcomed the news.
"I believe NBC's decision today is squarely in the public interest," Markey said, "and I applaud them for reversing course."
"By reversing course, I truly believe NBC will be helping to save lives," Wolf said. The lawmaker had been pushing Tauzin to hold hearings on liquor ads, which Tauzin wants to avoid because he believes liquor advertising is a First Amendment question with sticky public-policy implications.
"We ought to treat all liquor products the same," Tauzin said. "My hope would be to come to a resolution that respects the right of legal products to be advertised," and liquor is legal, Tauzin pointed out. "We either go back to Prohibition or realistically assess where we are."
Also working against NBC was the beer industry's quiet lobbying against its decision. The beer industry is against liquor advertising for two reasons, said Tauzin.
First, the beer industry doesn't want the liquor industry to start advertising on television to keep liquor from cutting in on beer's market share. The second is a policy issue: "If Americans are forced to choose between a policy that says one can advertise and the other can't," Tauzin said, "then the beer industry is concerned that the final policy might be that nobody advertises."
That concern is shared by broadcasters who don't want to lose the $1 billion in revenue beer and wine ads bring them each year just to chase after potentially $100 million in hard-liquor ads.
Those fears came to light last week when Mothers Against Drunk Driving held a press conference, calling on the beer and wine advertisers to adopt more stringent guidelines on its TV ads. The association still wants Congress to hold hearings.
"MADD is not against alcohol advertising; we simply want standards in place that will protect our children from constant exposure and messages that directly appeal to them," said MADD President-Elect Wendy Hamilton. "Beer and wine companies have long advertised on TV with lax responsibility standards and irresponsible advertising."
Tougher guidelines are just what beer and wine advertisers don't want, saying the standards they already endorse are tough enough.
"We have been able to make substantial progress in the fight against abusive and underage drinking," said Jeff Becker, president of the Beer Institute, "without depriving adults of some of the best-loved ads on television."
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