Hard Liquor Biz Pushes for TV Ads

The liquor industry is trying to break the ice with television.

Long banished from running its spots on television by an informal but durable agreement among the broadcast networks and their local affiliates, sellers of distilled drinks are making a concerted push in 2001 to get their commercials on the air.

Their pitch: There's no difference between beer ads, a staple of televised sportscasts, and ads for the distilled drinks — whiskey, gin, and the like — sold by the liquor industry. And, they say, with television ad sales slowing, the time is ripe for their commercials.

"We frankly view ourselves as being discriminated against," says Frank Coleman of the National Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, or DISCUS, an industry lobbying group in Washington.

Indeed, representatives of the $35 billion annual industry — who prefer to call their drinks "distilled spirits" instead of hard liquor — fume as they watch beer commercials spawn catch phrases and cult celebrities over the years, like Budweiser's current "Whassup?" ads or Bud Lite's iconic 1980s dog, Spuds McKenzie.

"It motivates us and it helps us make the fairness argument," Coleman adds.

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No Government Ban

Contrary to common perception, there is no government ban on hard liquor commercials on television, as there is for cigarettes. The ongoing ban is a voluntary one that dates back to the introduction of the medium.

And it is not completely enforced: Canadian distilled drink giant Seagram broke the barrier with a cable commercial in 1996, and since then, the industry has seen broadcast ads as a distinct possibility. But distilled drink makers spent under $1 million on television ads last year, out of a total of $322 million in advertising expenditures.

With this in mind, DISCUS had Jim Rogers, head of Sunbelt Communications, an owner of television stations, cut a spot this spring in which he urges his fellow broadcasters to consider running liquor commercials.

The group bought time on Las Vegas stations during the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters last month, hoping to sway television executives.

"For the past year and a half, I've chosen to run distilled spirits ads just like these on my eight stations," says Rogers, as ads for Jack Daniels Whiskey and Bailey's Irish Cream, among others, are shown in insets. "And there has been complete acceptance from our viewers."

We'll Show You the Money

But industry watchdogs say it would be a mistake to start treating distilled drinks as just another commodity to be sold on-screen, since they have a greater concentration of alcohol than beer or wine and pack a stronger punch.

"We've been opposed to liquor ads," says George Hacker, director of alcohol studies at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group and persistent critic of the alcohol industry in Washington. "We think that it's been good corporate citizenship by the liquor industry to stay off broadcasts watched by young people."

Despite this sort of criticism, liquor makers see 2001 as a particularly opportune time to make a push for getting their spots on the air. Coleman says television stations need the money that booze ads can bring them, since they can no longer depend on a confluence of factors that made 2000 a good year.

"Ad revenues are down," says Coleman. "The economy is hurting, the dot-coms that were spending like drunken sailors have gone away, and last year was a big, big political year."

Indeed, many analysts expect ad revenues at local television stations to fall in 2001. For his part, Hacker acknowledges the pressure the television business is facing, saying the odds of liquor ads proliferating on television are "significant, if the broadcast industry hits on hard times."

Reaching a Larger Audience

But if distillers are saying their ad money can help the broadcast business, they undoubtedly believe television exposure will help the drink business and be a more economically efficient way of reaching a big audience, as well.

According to Advertising Age, makers of distilled liquor, unable to rely on the reach of television, spent nearly twice as much of their revenues on all forms of advertising as beer makers did in 2000.

And while hard liquor sales have increased in recent years, the industry's rising tide has come only after a couple decades of decline — and could dry up if the economy declines.

But beer companies will continue to get prominent television exposure come good times or bad. And as long as brewers do, the liquor industry will aspire to gain parity with the breweries, to the chagrin of those who would like to see liquor ads kept off the air.

Says Hacker: "Why would we want to make drinking vodka appear as cool and associated with successful outcomes as beer already is?"

Until now, that's been the viewpoint of the television industry, too. But the liquor industry hopes broadcast executives are closer to adopting the perspective put forward by Coleman: "Alcohol is alcohol is alcohol."