A SPIRITED DEBATE

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Homer Simpson, the weak-willed hero of The Simpsons, celebrating the end of Prohibition in Springfield, hoists a beer and toasts: “To alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems.�

Such ambivalence seems to spin dizzily around the beast of alcohol. It is a vice demonized by the pious, celebrated by poets and consumed by a great mass of Western culture for its intoxicant and palliative properties. In the darker projection, it is a poison, the stuff that corrupts youngsters and ruins earnest men. In the lighter, it is the great social lubricant, quaffed after a hard day's work or hoisted in boisterous company. The debate fades to grays when we broach its role as the key ingredient in a vast array of products, legal yet restricted by terms of use, some marketed to a mass audience through a vast array of clever, dynamic communications, yet some not. On the latter issue, the country is approaching a point where it can no longer have it both ways, and, whether by more stringent regulation of alcohol advertising in toto or opening the doors wide to liquor marketers, the current double standard cannot long hold.

The argument re-emerged in a flurry of media stories late last year following NBC's decision to accept a Smirnoff-branded “responsible drinking� message on Saturday Night Live, a soft-spoken spot showing a row of empty glasses on a bar, then someone dropping keys at the end, followed by the red Smirnoff logo. Comedy Central has since begun airing ads for Baileys liqueur, and according to press reports, Jack Daniels marketer Brown-Forman is contemplating adjusting its marketing plan to give considerably more weight to TV.

The issue is compounded by the concurrent wave of sweet, low-alcohol, so-called “malternative� beverages carrying the names of major liquor brands — Guinness UDV's own Smirnoff Ice, Anheuser-Busch's Bacardi Silver and Miller's Skyy Blue. These have been collectively buoyed by more than $100 million in ad support, and not necessarily subject to network restrictions on liquor advertising, that are mostly still in place — even after the spirits industry rescinded its own voluntary ban in 1996.

The industries' aims are relatively straightforward. Broadcast media obviously want the incremental revenue a new product category promises; the liquor industry wants a sales uptick. From 1980 to 2000, beer's share of the alcoholic beverage market increased to 58 percent from 53 percent, and wine to 12.3 percent from 10.7 percent, while spirits declined to 28.8 percent from 36.6 percent, according to beverage industry tracker Adams Business Research, in Norwalk, Conn.

But both industries have broached the issue at a time when Americans have made a distinct turn to their vices as balm to national trauma and recession. Anecdotal evidence suggests that alcoholic beverage sales have risen disproportionately in the weeks since Sept. 11. Indeed, Columbia University's National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse (NCASA) found that 13 states have detected a higher demand for treatment of substance abuse since the attacks. An ominous scenario, industry watchdogs admonish, at a time when advertising is bringing new legitimacy and attention to the product category in the eyes of the nation's under-21 population.

According to a sampling of 500 adults conducted this past December by Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, based in Washington, D.C., for the public advocacy group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), 68 percent of Americans oppose NBC's decision to abrogate its own role in the ban of liquor ads, while only 20 percent are supportive. Some 72 percent agreed with the long-term ad ban. The CSPI has joined a chorus of strident critics — including the American Medical Association (AMA) and NCASA — all longtime advocates of restrictions on beer advertising as well. But there remains a palpable distinction in American perceptions of beer versus liquor.

In 1997, a year after the trade association Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS) first lifted its ban and liquor ads began trickling onto local TV stations, the University of Missouri's Center for Advanced Social Research (CASR) found in a sample of 818 adults that 52 percent favored a ban of liquor ads on TV, 34 percent were opposed, while only 37 percent favored a ban on beer commercials. The center's 1999 survey (961 adults) found that those favoring the liquor ban had slipped to 49 percent, while those supporting a ban on beer ads had crept up to 41 percent. But a double standard seemed to remain. In response to a new question added in 1999, 47 percent said liquor advertising should be more strictly regulated and only 14 percent said beer should, while 26 percent said rules should be the same for both. And though government guidelines stipulate that a 12-oz. container of beer contains the same amount of alcohol as a 1.5-oz. shot of liquor (or a 5-oz. glass of wine), a plurality, 38 percent, erroneously considered four shots of alcohol the equivalent of five to eight beers, if not more.

Booze — let's be clear — is not heroin. Yet a stigma surrounds it. Its image as some kind of beverage bogey stems, to some extent, from the spirits industry's decision to eschew broadcast media from 1948 to 1996. “By not being on television when beer and wine were, we have sort of lost parity in the minds of the American public, such that we have added to the scientifically inaccurate perception that there is something different between spirits, beer and wine,� says Peter Cressy, president/CEO of DISCUS.

The problem for the industry is getting over that hump. According to the CASR study, 74 percent of adults considered it likely that TV ads will encourage teenagers to start drinking liquor — the biggest bone of contention between the sides. “NBC's stated guidelines restrict [liquor ads] to shows with audiences with 85 percent 21-and-older viewership, on after 9 p.m.,� says George Hacker, president of CSPI. “It seems, on its face, stringent, [but] if you just look at the population between [ages] 10 and 19, that's about 16 percent of the country right there. So you could have a show where young people are a minority, yet a very large plurality of young people could be watching. So what kind of protection is that?�

Some 11 million Americans under age 21 consume alcohol illegally, according to the AMA. But how much of that is simply the youth curve and how much of it is ad-influenced? “If you go to the brand level and pick out brands that have been very successful in advertising, such as Absolut, Bartles & Jaymes and Miller Lite, there's never really a spillover,� says Jon Nelson, professor of economics at Penn State. Nelson's studies, which analyze the effectiveness of advertising as well as that of ad bans and restrictions, concludes that even in cases of successful marketing, the rising tide does not lift all boats. In other words, one brand's gain is usually at the expense of other brands, long the mantra of alcohol marketers accused of targeting youth.

For example, “there's a very strong correlation between adult consumption and youth consumption, and that's a fairly strong relationship,� Nelson says. “So if adult consumption is declining, that has had some carry-over to youth consumption. Youth consumption has been declining for most of the '90s. [The correlation between advertising and increased alcohol usage] is not sort of a weak relationship. It is weak.�

Even so, the media is hedging its bets. DISCUS adamantly insists that its members will use tightly focused adult programming, and NBC's 85 percent rule is a far cry above established network standards for beer advertising (51 percent adults). But when all the numbers stack up, the rule only excludes one show out of the network's total prime-time lineup from liquor advertising, according to a report by Initiative Media N.A., a Los Angeles-based unit of ad agency conglomerate Interpublic. Ira Sussman, executive vice president and director of Initiative's IM Futures group, thinks that NBC's 85 percent mark could be even stricter.

“I think the industry has a right to be concerned about it,� says Hank Close, senior vice president of sales at Comedy Central, one of the first channels to run liquor-brand “malternative� ads, who now seems ambivalent about seeing the floodgates open. “I'd be hard-pressed to accept a beverage with 12 percent alcohol and say that 17 percent [Baileys] is out of bounds, but I don't know about 40 percent. At various points in the past, Congress has thrown a shadow on the issue, so I'm not looking forward to the day when hard liquor is accepted at a wide variety of networks.�

University of Missouri's CASR found in 1999 that 64 percent of Americans agreed that the federal government should regulate liquor advertising. Vice and kids together become a political hot button, which media and alcoholic beverage companies hope to avoid religiously. The media that so covet liquor dollars right now would be loath to lose any of the $700 million-plus spent by beer companies last year. But any exhaustive public analysis of the research could make it clear that any regulation of one product category would require regulators' equal attention across the board. The foray could be an all-or-nothing play, gambling that a Prohibition-era bogey is still not scary enough to rally cadres of politicos to reclassify rum as “demon.�

NBC'S CRITERIA FOR ACCEPTING LIQUOR ADS:

All ads must run after 9 p.m.

Actors must be over the age of 30.

Drinking must not be portrayed as a rite of passage.

Ads must not show liquor being consumed.

About 85 percent of program viewers must be 21 or older.

Advertiser must air only “social responsibility� messages for four months before commencing “brand� advertising, at which time 20 percent of the ads must still include these messages.

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