Seagram's decision to air liquor ads brings out some well-mixed reaction

The Outlook

September 29, 1996|By Greg Schneider

WHAT COULD Seagram have been thinking? The distiller took on almost half a century of tradition earlier this year when it began airing television advertisements in Corpus Christi, Texas. Its industry had upheld a voluntary ban on TV ads for 48 years.

Politicians, predictably, reacted with vigor. President Clinton and others called on Seagram to stop. But just last week, the Canada-based distiller announced its intent to plow ahead with more TV spots.

It's expanding its advertising markets, bringing Chivas and Crown Royal whiskey to video screens in Boston and several other areas around the country -- including, possibly, a push at Baltimore.

What remains to be seen is whether other distillers will follow suit. And whether the government is likely to tiptoe through the free-speech issue to replace that old gentleman's agreement with some kind of legal restriction.

Not surprisingly, there is a wide variety of opinion on the prospects.

Harold Vogel

Managing director,

Cowen & Co., New York

Seagram obviously has thought long and hard about this subject and come to the conclusion that it is worth the risk of the approbation of other people. They do have, I think, a constitutional right to advertise. Nobody says it's something they can't do.

I think if they are responsible in their approach without encouraging rampant alcoholism or something like that, they would be fine.

I think probably other distillers will follow suit, because if Seagram starts to advertise it puts everyone else at a competitive disadvantage. I assume they will respond in kind.

It does run the risk of the government stepping in. I could see that as a possibility.

But Seagram probably feels they have to broaden the market somehow. It's not so much to expand the number of people who drink, it's more an effort to build the brand so that if you're going to drink, you may as well drink Seagram.

Talk to me in a year from now and I'll tell you how smart it is.

Hal Shoup

Executive vice president, American Associationof Advertising Agencies

I think that the media will be delighted with the prospect of a new category of advertisers.

As far as whether or not it's a good marketing decision, I would suspect that only time will tell. But, obviously, if suddenly the Seagram market share were to go up significantly, I would anticipate that other distilled spirits marketers would have to take a very careful look at whether or not they can afford not to use the broadcast media.

I don't believe this will lure the government to take action, because the Supreme Court has consistently indicated through its decisions that the marketer of any legal product has the right to truthfully advertise that product.

The tobacco advertising restrictions that have kept that product off the air are laws that were passed in 1970, and those laws have never been challenged in the courts. They also were passed before the Supreme Court had really articulated what we call now the Commercial Speech Doctrine, which did not really start to evolve until about 1980.

The court has consistently made it clear that if the advertising is truthful and the product is legal, then government cannot pass laws or impose regulations that ban or restrict that advertising.

Donna Becker

Public policy chairperson, Mothers Against Drunk Driving -- Maryland

MADD has problems already with the beer and wine ads on TV, because so many seem targeted to young people. They keep telling us they're not, but if you look it's hard to tell the difference whether the people in the ads are 18 or 25.

Our kids get bombarded with so many things already; to add liquor to it I just think is the wrong message to send.

I believe in free speech, too, but there's also the issue of what's dangerous. You're endangering people's lives. In a subtle way, you're encouraging underage drinking, which is against the law. I think they should be more responsible than that.

Joe Lewin

General manager, WMAR Channel 2

They are trying to open Baltimore. My sales manager told me just Thursday morning that she got a call from Gray Advertising in New York asking if we accept liquor advertising, which we do not.

Anticipating that it might come into some of our markets, our owner, Scripps-Howard, has set a corporate policy that we will not accept hard liquor advertising. I think it's just based on the knowledge that it can be injurious to your health to consume alcohol.

Most broadcast organizations have just accepted beer and wine advertising. When you look at it historically, I think beer and wine consumption has been viewed differently because of the low levels of alcohol. But we have drawn the line now on hard liquor.

Pub Date: 9/29/96

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