Who’s Responsible for Racy Content?

WASHINGTON When a marketer sponsors a show, is that company responsible for all the content that appears in the program?

This thorny question in an age of heightened concern about sexual and violent content that can be seen by kids surfaces with the upcoming July 19 premiere of Mad Men, a term coined in the late 1950s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue, according to the online video promo for the new AMC drama. Jack Daniel’s whiskey is the sponsor of the show.

The brand will appear in three scenes in the 13-part series, with parent company Brown-Foreman having veto power over how the brand is used.

This is the first time Jack Daniels has sponsored branded entertainment as a marketing strategy.

The drama’s racy content, including smoking, sex, sexual harassment and drinking, has caught the ire of the public advocacy group Commercial Alert, which filed a complaint June 20 with the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S.—the liquor trade association—charging that Jack Daniel’s violates the industry’s advertising code.

“The first scene shown in the ‘sneak peek’ for the program demonstrates that sponsorship by a liquor company cannot be squared with the DISCUS code,” the complaint said. The scene shows an ad exec drinking before he hops into bed with a woman. The DISCUS code precludes liquor ads in shows with “scenes of overt sexual activity,” among other prohibitions.

Phil Lynch, a Brown-Foreman vp, said the company accepted an offer from AMC and is not paying to place the brand in the show. Lynch argues that sponsoring marketers are not responsible for the content of a show.

“Consumers are smart enough to distinguish between fiction and advertising, and it is absurd to think consumers don’t have that ability,” Lynch said. DISCUS rep Frank Coleman said the complaint was under review.

“Branded entertainment is certainly permissible under the code,” he said.