Liquor OK in Moderation

Hard-liquor ads are acceptable on network TV in a fairly limited context—if they air on appropriate shows, at appropriate times and with appropriate messages. That’s the finding of one of the first agency analyses to be made public following NBC’s decision last month to drop a voluntary ban on hard-liquor advertising.

Initiative Media North America conducted the online survey Jan. 4-5 to gauge how viewers would react to liquor marketing on network TV. More than two-thirds of the 503 respondents said liquor ads should be limited to responsible-drinking messages and not extend to product appeals. Just under 54 percent strongly or somewhat agreed that liquor ads should include responsible-drinking and health warnings.

The most acceptable time for liquor ads is after 11 p.m., the study found. Acceptable programs included The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and Late Show With David Letterman; both had more than 50 percent “most appropriate” ratings. Respondents found the Olympic Games the least appropriate venue, with a 13 percent rating.

“Consumers think that in the right programming—late night—and done responsibly, distilled-spirit advertising is not an issue,” said Carolyn Bivens, Initiative’s president and chief operating officer. “And one of the huge take-aways is that [almost] 80 percent say parents and peers, not advertising, define young people’s attitudes toward alcohol.”

The hard-liquor business has argued that it faces marketplace “discrimination” because beer and wine are advertised on TV, a view consu mers seem to support. Just under 53 percent of respondents agreed distilled-spirit advertisers are “at a disadvantage” to beer and wine marketers.

Last month, NBC ran a drunk-driving PSA sponsored by Smirnoff Vodka on Saturday Night Live under more than a dozen guidelines [Adweek, Dec. 17]. It was the first network hard-liquor spot to air since the Distilled Spirits Council removed its 50-year-old voluntary ban on broadcast advertising in 1996 (since then, liquor ads have aired on local and cable TV, as well as radio stations around the country).

Initiative’s research argues for strict standards, said Ira Sussman, evp of Initiative’s research arm, IM Futures. “Guidelines have to be a lot more stringent than what the networks have developed on their own. The last thing we want is for regulatory groups to come down on clients.”

Indeed, NBC has drawn fire from public-advocacy groups. Last month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest released results of a poll it conducted in which 72 percent of respondents supported network policies banning liquor ads.

“We have been running distilled-spirits advertising since 1996 on over 450 television stations, over 4,000 radio stations and on cable systems that cover more than 85 percent of the U.S.,” countered Jon Mandel, chief negotiating officer for MediaCom, which bought the Smirnoff spot. “In five years, we have received less than 20 complaints.”—with David Kaplan and Wendy Melillo