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NBC Falls Off the Wagon

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Agency executives are hailing NBC's decision last week to break network TV's long-standing taboo against hard-liquor ads.

"Every liquor advertiser is going to be looking at their budget [now] to see how they can shift into broadcast television," said media consultant Valerie Mueller, former svp/group print director for MediaCom.

NBC's ban ended last weekend on Saturday Night Live, with a drunk-driving public-service spot sponsored by Guinness/UDV's Smirnoff Vodka. The work was created by West Hill Partners, New York, and Glover Park Group, Washington, D.C.

The network's reversal, driven by the economic recession, is the latest step in a process that began in 1996, when the hard-liquor industry lifted a 50-year voluntary ban on electronic advertising. Since then, spots have aired on cable, local TV and radio, but the top five spirits distillers currently allocate only 15 percent of their ad budgets to electronic media.

Agency execs have tried for years to get the networks' ban removed. The industry trade group, the Distilled Spirits Council, has also lobbied heavily, attending the National Association of Broad casters convention this year and talking to the Television Bureau of Advertising and Con gress.

"If you're going to impose these kinds of restrictions, advertisers would be selling nothing but baby shampoo," one agency executive said of the ban.

Hard-liquor ads must meet 19 criteria to run on NBC. One of the provisions requires that spots promoting responsible drinking run for at least four months before any ads that promote product.

Media executives disagreed on whether NBC was driven by economic realities. "The chances of it happening in a tight market are pretty slim," said Charlie Rutman, president of Carat USA.

Jon Mandel, the chief negotiating officer for Diageo's Media Com, said, "It's a sad irony that people are picking up on [the economy] as the rea son. Several of the units we bought were in shows that were sold out, and we had to fight to get in there."

A representative for Rep. W. J. "Billy" Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the liquor industry has a right to run TV ads if it does so responsibly: "Surfers sitting around a campfire on the beach guzzling Jim Beam certainly isn't appropriate."