CBS, Absolut Drink to Tough Times in Prime

Viewers on Feb. 8 who tuned in to CBS’ broadcast of the 51st Annual Grammy Awards were treated to a cross-generational Whitman’s Sampler of live performances, as kiddie-pop artists the Jonas Brothers teamed up with R&B icon Stevie Wonder, and Paul McCartney ripped through “I Saw Her Standing There” with lead Foo Fighter Dave Grohl.

But perhaps the most groundbreaking moment came in the third hour of the program, when affiliates in 14 of the top DMAs ran a 30-second branding spot for Absolut vodka. The event marked the first time a commercial for a distilled-spirits product has appeared on any CBS-owned TV station. As produced by TBWA/Chiat/Day, the “Hugs” ad presents a softly-lit parallel universe where affection is coin of the realm, and a kiss on the cheek is the sanctioned currency. Scored with the Louis Armstrong standard “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” the ad ends with the “In An Absolut World” tag line and an understated product shot.

Built as the TV extension of a brand campaign that launched in spring 2007, the “Hugs” spot 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 the individual stations. In New York, the Absolut ad will run in late-night during CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman and The Late, Late Show. The other TV station to carry the spot is NBC flagship WNBC-TV, which will slate it during The Tonight Show.

According to a CBS representative, 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,” he said. “In this case, they determined that the creative for this particular spot is tasteful and appropriate for the stations’ late-evening audiences.”

While CBS may be taking a step into unchartered waters, NBC is in familiar drink. In 2001, NBC became the first to experiment with carrying a liquor ad on its 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 deal.

Since then, NBC has made tentative forays back into the category, including a brief execution with Bacardi North America in 2007.

While the Bacardi buy also was short-lived, the media buyer who brokered the deal said that interest in spirits continues to bubble up. “We’ve been approached by O&Os to do more liquor business,” said Kathy Doyle, senior vp, director of local broadcast, Universal McCann. “I think the category is getting ready to break open.”

National cable is also a major component of the Absolut buy, as the spot will appear on a roster of targeted nets, including FX (Damages, Nip/Tuck), E! (The Soup) and Comedy Central. (Since 2001, when a recession forced nets to seek out alternative sponsorship dollars, cable has been awash in booze.)

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.”

Should the Sons of Temperance take issue with the Absolut spot, the creative will find its way to YouTube. On Feb. 9, Absolut will engineer a 24-hour homepage takeover of the site, said Clare Kanter, Absolut senior brand manager. “We didn’t really have the funding to do a national buy, so we’re making the ad available to our key target, adults 21-29,” Kanter said. “It would be a mistake not to be there.”

If all goes according to plan, Absolut will piece together a second TV buy in the latter half of the year.