NBC tiptoes off the wagon

The first major broadcast net to accept hard-liquor ads sets 'responsible' policy

Last summer, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the Washington trade organization for the big liquor companies, started lobbying broadcasters hard to accept their on-air advertising. At the time, DISCUS President Peter Cressy predicted it was just a matter of time before one or more of the major networks started accepting hard-liquor ads.

Last week, NBC made Cressy look prescient. The network changed its policy to accept ads for distilled spirits after 9 p.m., making it the first major broadcast network to lift its blanket ban on liquor advertising.

As part of the policy change, however, distilled-spirits advertisers must first commit to at least a four-month on-air social-responsibility campaign (promoting responsible drinking, designated drivers, etc.).

After that, 20% of the time bought for any product campaign has to be devoted to social-responsibility themes. Among other rules: 85% of the audience exposed to liquor ads must be at least 21 years old, the actors in the ads must be at least 30.

Guinness UDV, producer of Smirnoff vodka, will be the first advertiser under the new policy, which kicks off this week.

An NBC executive strongly denied that the network revised its alcohol-ad ban now to generate more revenue in the soft market, noting that Guinness approached the network, not the other way around.

Besides that, he said, the hard-liquor ad category is minuscule by TV standards. The industry spends about $350 million in advertising, about 85% of which currently goes to print, leaving some $55 million for TV and radio. "It's just not going to make a difference to our business model." At least not yet.

But some worry that the notoriety of a network's accepting liquor commercials will invigorate foes of beer commercials, which carry much of the freight in sports programming, or halt the trend toward deregulation. Indeed, one top sales executive at a rival network fretted last week that NBC's policy change might be more harmful than helpful to the TV ad market, once Washington begins to weigh in. NBC sources said they had briefed key Capitol Hill types.

One competitor said NBC "seemed to take a measured and responsible approach." But ABC, CBS and Fox said their bans remain in effect.

Until 1996, the media industry had a self-imposed ban on TV ads. Since then, according to DISCUS, about 300 local TV stations, 200 local cable systems and 2,000 radio stations have accepted hard-liquor ads. So have a slew of national cable networks, including BET, E!, Comedy Central, USA, Sci Fi, and Bloomberg. Regional Fox Sports networks also take them, as do AT&T, Comcast, and Charter cable systems.

Guinness UDV is represented on the DISCUS board of directors by CEO Paul Clinton, who is said to be talking with the group about formally adopting NBC's policy. DISCUS Vice President Frank Coleman said he was unaware of such talks.

NBC's 19-point policy states that no consumption of alcohol can be depicted and no active professional athletes or celebrities whose primary appeal is to those under 21 may used in the ads either. Ads shouldn't promote drinking as glamorous, a way to relieve stress or maintain social status. References to the euphoric effects of liquor or suggestions that it enhances "sexual prowess, attractiveness or interpersonal relationships" are to be strictly avoided.

Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving credits NBC with having a reasonable approach: "It is our understanding that the ads will comply with MADD's alcohol-advertising position and will air late at night during programs that target 85%-adult audiences. MADD hopes these will be permanent standards and that they will be applied to all segments of the industry."