Liquor ads slip back onto TV

But NBC's decision to run commercials may not be noticed

January 02, 2002|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Now that NBC has agreed to accept commercials for hard liquor, many in the Baltimore advertising community say other networks will follow suit and that such advertising is here to stay.

Yet, viewers may scarcely notice the new advertising, based on the findings of a recent poll commissioned by Eisner Communications.

The majority of Americans, 56 percent, said they thought they had recently seen a commercial for hard liquor on TV - but such ads have been absent from broadcast television since a self-imposed ban in 1948, said David L. Blum, senior vice president of Eisner Communications.

"What we know from all kinds of research is when you're advertising somewhere, people tend to think you're advertising on television, even when you're not," Blum said.

The study, done in October 2000 by Edison, N.J.-based Brushkin Research, polled 1,000 adults across the country. The study concluded that the majority thought they had seen television advertising for hard liquor within the year. A second question asked those polled whether they were aware of the voluntary ban on such advertising. The statistics matched up, with 44 percent of those polled saying they knew about the self-imposed ban on liquor advertising, Blum said. The study had a 4 percent margin of error, he said.

The recent debate started in mid-December, when NBC, part of General Electric Co., became the first broadcast network to agree to accept ads for spirits since liquor marketers lifted the self-imposed ban in 1996.

Those commercials carry a long string of stipulations. They will appear only after four months of social responsibility messages, must run after 9 p.m. and must feature actors who are at least 30 years old. Once the initial social responsibility messages appear, one out of five commercials must address such topics as moderation.

The first message aired Dec. 15 during "Saturday Night Live" for the Guinness UDV division of London-based food and drink conglomerate Diageo PLC, and urged people to choose a designated driver before drinking.

"This could help accelerate warnings and other attempts to increase the responsible drinking message in all media," Blum said.

He predicted that printed warnings and messages about social responsibility could be required in print advertisements for hard liquor within the next five years.

John P. McLaughlin, executive vice president of Baltimore-based Green & Associates Inc., an advertising agency, said such messages could start even sooner - within the year.

But he predicted that liquor marketers will do everything possible to appear responsible and to avoid programming that would skew to young audiences.

"I think liquor advertising on television is here to stay," McLaughlin said. "I think they're going to learn lessons from other industries and be very careful."

As chief executive officer for Baltimore-based advertising agency Carton Donofrio Partners Inc., Chuck Donofrio understands the business allure of liquor advertising. But the social implications worry him, he said.

"If the industry chooses to raise the level of aggressiveness of its marketing, I think there's a reasonable chance that there will be a backlash from groups and public health entities concerned about alcoholism and its impact on society," he said.

Some cable networks have been running liquor ads.

Already, the advertising has sparked reaction.

"What they want to do is mainstream liquor like beer has been," said George A. Hacker, director of the alcohol policies project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.

Hacker cites information from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: People who begin drinking by age 15 are four times as likely to become alcohol dependent as those who wait until age 21.

And Hacker said he does not think much of the social responsibility messages that liquor companies have developed.

"In our minds, these responsibility messages are brand advertising in very thin disguise," he said. "It's so thinly veiled, it's a joke."

Hacker predicted action against liquor ads when Congress returns.

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