Absolut Breaks Voluntary Ban on Liquor Ads on Broadcast TV

NEW YORK Instead of Katy Perry or Kanye West, Absolut Vodka may get the most attention from its scheduled appearance during the 51st Grammy Awards this past Sunday night. Absolut has taken the bold step of breaking the voluntary ban of spirits advertising on broadcast TV.

In the third hour of the Grammys, affiliates in 14 of the top DMAs were slated to run a 30-second TV spot called “Hugs.” It marked the first time a commercial for a distilled-spirits product would appear on any CBS-owned local broadcast stations.

The move is a controversial one. Advocacy groups claim that children under 21 already see too much alcohol-related advertising and allowing liquor marketers on network TV will only exacerbate this fact.

In 2001, NBC became the first to experiment with carrying a liquor ad on its New York flagship station, selling Smirnoff vodka time on Saturday Night Live.

Although that branding spot was meant to be followed by months of pro-social messaging about responsible alcohol consumption, the subsequent backlash from Congress and advocacy groups made it untenable for NBC to continue the arrangement.

Since then, NBC made tentative forays back into the category, airing spots on its New York affiliate from Bacardi and Grey Goose.

According to a CBS rep, the affiliates will run the Absolut ad at their own discretion: “Each of our local station general managers is responsible for evaluating the suitability of ads. In this case, they determined that the creative for this particular spot is tasteful and appropriate for the stations’ late-evening audiences.”

Produced by TBWA\Chiat\Day, New York, the “Hugs” ad is an exercise in restrained buoyancy, presenting a softly-lit parallel universe where affection is coin of the realm, a kiss on the cheek the sanctioned currency. Scored with the Louis Armstrong standard, “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” it ends with the “In an Absolut world” tag and an understated product shot.

The “Hugs” spot, built as the TV extension of a brand campaign that launched in spring 2007, aired after 10 p.m. Sunday in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and 10 other top-20 markets, an ambitious local buy reaching 31 percent of all U.S. TV households.

This week, the ad will be seen in seven local markets, with the particulars of each buy determined by individual stations. If all goes according to plan, Absolut will piece together a second TV buy in the latter half of the year.

Other spirits brands may follow suit. “We’ve been approached by [stations] to do more liquor business,” said Kathy Doyle, svp, director of local broadcast at Universal McCann, who brokered the Bacardi deal. “I think the category is getting ready to break open.”

With local advertising in free-fall, broadcasters may no longer have the stomach to turn away liquor patronage. “The world has changed since 2001. People are more accepting of spirits advertising,” said Arthur Shapiro, alcohol industry consultant, AM Shapiro and Associates. “The industry draws the distinction between network, cable or spot. The consumer doesn’t care.”

Absolut was purchased for $8.9 billion by Pernod Ricard last July. Shapiro said the network buy is an attempt to regain some of the brand’s lost cachet. “They want to recapture the equity it once had,” he said.

“The Grammys is our coming-out party. Big events demand to be seen live, so they counteract the ad avoidance you face in other environments,” said Clare Kanter, Absolut senior brand manager. “We’re getting the big audience, the right demo and we’re in a party-type atmosphere.”

At 5 million cases sold in 2007, Absolut is the fourth best-selling spirit in the U.S., per Impact, New York. Still, Svedka and many other brands have slowed its sales. In fact, the brand’s sales are expected to be off as much as 6 percent when the final 2008 totals are tallied.

The network buy may not help its cause, said George Hacker, director of the alcohol policies project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “The brand will certainly be held up to scorn. Obviously, these are tough times and the networks are looking for revenue wherever they can get it. [But], we are less than delighted by this expansion of spirits advertising onto network television.”