Liquor industry lifts ban on TV, radio ads Voluntary embargo ends after decades, triggering protests


The U.S. liquor industry decided yesterday to end a decades-long voluntary ban on the advertising of liquor products such as vodka, Scotch whisky, gin and tequila on television and radio.

The decision by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, or Discus, the liquor trade association, came six months after Seagram Co., the nation's second-largest seller of distilled spirits, began defying the ban -- in effect since 1936 for radio and 1948 for television -- by running commercials in scattered markets.

Those tentative steps set off a furor among anti-alcohol groups and some federal legislators and regulators, who urged that if the voluntary ban were abandoned, it be enacted into law. Even President Clinton urged Seagram to reconsider.

Among the critics yesterday were Reed Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the National Association of Broadcasters and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

It is unclear how and when liquor commercials may appear on radio and television now that the ban has been lifted. The four major national broadcast television networks, for instance, have their own policies against accepting advertising for distilled spirits, and all said yesterday that they had no intention of changing those rules.

But other liquor marketers may follow Seagram's example by finding local television and radio stations and regional cable channels that will accept their commercials, which would augment their ads in newspapers, magazines and billboards.

For example, on Wednesday night, a cable channel in Rockland County, N.Y., ran a commercial for a Seagram brand, Chivas Regal Scotch whisky, during a sports program.

"There's no basis for letting two forms of alcohol advertising, beer and wine, on television and radio and discriminating against another form," said Fred Meister, president and chief executive of Discus.

Though the ban is being ended, Meister said, all other provisions of the advertising guidelines for Discus members, called the Code of Good Practice, remain unchanged. They include prohibitions against using "cartoon figures that are popular predominantly with children" or claiming "sexual prowess as a result of beverage alcohol consumption."

Though the code has several provisions that admonish against appeals "to persons below the legal purchase age" of distilled spirits, the lifting of the ban does not include any stipulations that liquor commercials be confined to later hours. Some liquor companies said, though, that they would limit commercials to time periods when older audiences presumably predominate.

A top executive of Seagram welcomed the Discus decision.

"We have felt for some time the ban was obsolete," said Arthur Shapiro, executive vice president for marketing and strategy for the Seagram Americas unit of Seagram in New York, which in addition to Chivas Regal sells Crown Royal Canadian whiskey and Absolut vodka.

One reason Shapiro gave for his belief that the ban was "out of date" was that distilled spirits could be advertised on electronic media such as the Internet but not on others, such as television.

"Why is one TV screen acceptable," he asked, "but not another?"

The decision was castigated by a leading foe of liquor commercials. "This is a bad day," said George Hacker, director of the alcohol-policies project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group in Washington. "This sends a signal that the liquor industry has declared open season on kids."

Hacker urged that the 105th Congress schedule hearings on a proposal made earlier this year by Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, a Massachusetts Democrat, to make the voluntary ban a law.

Seagram ignited the contretemps with a commercial for Crown Royal that appeared a single time in March on Prime Sports Network, an obscure cable channel. Seagram pressed ahead with more spots that have since run on local and regional broadcast and cable venues.

Shapiro said that if "our learning is such that we're not enriching our ability to market our products, to gain market share, we would have to re-evaluate" the decision to advertise on television and radio.

The Discus vote, by the executive committee of that organization in a telephone conference call yesterday morning, was unanimous.

Liquor marketers have long sought to use television and radio to add motion, sound and other appealing stimuli to their ads. Meister said that for four years Discus had talked -- and conducted research with consumers -- about the possibility of lifting the ban.

"This decision is disappointing for parents and dangerous for our kids," Reed Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, said in a statement. Last month he began an inquiry into the appearance of commercials for Seagram products on television stations in New Hampshire and Texas.

Pub Date: 11/08/96

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