Although commercials for hard liquor pop up locally, most cable networks say they have policies against accepting liquor advertising nationally. And with the recent uproar over broadcast giant NBC's decision to accept liquor advertising-culminating in an about-face last March-cable networks aren't ready to admit they plan to accept liquor advertisers with open arms.
But such reluctance will change soon, says Tom Pirko, a beverage industry analyst with BevMark, Santa Barbara, Calif.
"It's just a matter of time before TV networks in general relax their national liquor ad policies, and the cable networks will go first," Mr. Pirko says. "It's inevitable because there is a great desire among liquor marketers to reach these audiences, and an equal desire for cable networks to welcome that money."
benefactors of NBC decision
Bacardi USA became the latest example of that inevitability when it recently broke a campaign for Bombay Sapphire gin nationally on five cable networks. The advertising is appearing on Bravo, Outdoor Life Network and Universal Television's USA Network, Sci-Fi Channel and Trio digital channel. MDC Communications Corp.'s Margeotes/Fertitta & Partners, New York, handles.
There are already indications that No. 1 liquor marketer Diageo, stung by NBC 's reversal on running its ads, will succeed in creating an "unwired network" of cable channels, and local and independent broadcast stations to carry as much as $200 million annually in liquor ads, though it may take longer than originally planned. Grey Global Group's MediaCom Worldwide, Diageo's New York-based media-buying agency, is moving forward with plans to finalize the network, but the agency wouldn't divulge the names of TV outlets interested in participating.
The MediaCom-Diageo plan would allow the marketer to make one media buy covering most U.S. markets, with the goal of negotiating network TV rates for those buys vs. higher spot TV rates.
When General Electric Co.'s NBC reversed its decision to start accepting liquor ads, under pressure by critics ranging from legislators to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, cable networks became tight-lipped about the future of accepting national liquor advertising.
But NBC's backpedaling hasn't stopped commercials from rolling onto local affiliates of that network and News Corp.'s Fox, says Phil Lynch, VP-corporate communications for Brown-Forman Corp. Over the last two years, 30-second TV spots for Brown-Forman's Jack Daniel's Tennessee whiskey have run on local cable and broadcast network affiliate telecasts of "ER," "The West Wing" and the Super Bowl, and this fall the company plans to break its first-ever U.S. TV spots for Southern Comfort.
"We've been advertising Jack Daniel's in 40 local TV and cable markets with significant success, and no negative pushback from consumers," Mr. Lynch says. Havas' Arnold Worldwide, St. Louis, handles.
The Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., a defender of liquor advertising during the NBC flap, maintains that televised liquor ads have been reaching 67% of U.S. households over the last five years "with broad acceptance" by consumers. But as cable TV networks stick to their mantra of not accepting ads nationally, cracks may be appearing in their resolve.
"There are already liquor ads on a number of cable networks, and over time we'll see more of them on a national basis," says a top executive with one of the largest cable TV networks, who wished to remain anonymous.
"Although our policy is that we only accept ads for wine and beer, we continue to evaluate the marketplace. But we're looking at it through the filter of our audience, and we don't do anything that doesn't have their approval," says Steve Gigliotti, senior VP-ad sales for Scripps Networks, which operates the Food Network, Home & Garden TV, Do-It-Yourself Network and Fine Living.
Mr. Gigliotti adds that while wine and beer ads are widely accepted on TV, his company feels liquor advertising must be presented appropriately. "It's not lost on us that we talk quite a bit about liquor in our programming, and liquor has a very big culinary role on TV. But when it's advertised, it might be received differently," he says.
madd Seeks standards
For the record, MADD isn't calling for a ban on all liquor advertising. The organization "is not against alcohol advertising; we simply want standards in place that will protect our children from constant exposure and messages that directly appeal to them," says Millie I. Webb, MADD's president.
Those standards include restricting liquor advertising to programs where at least 90% of viewers are 21 or over, and matching the amount of liquor advertising with an equal amount of advertising with educational messages about alcohol, including its effects on health and safety. MADD's list of recommended standards also includes not using celebrities, actors under the age of 30, cartoon characters or drinking rituals in any liquor TV spots.
Media buyers believe liquor marketers will eventually expand to national TV.
"The liquor and advertising industries are so much in the spotlight on this issue that there is no way they can avoid doing responsible advertising, and they know it will hurt their images if they don't," says Paul Woolmington, president of media shop Media Kitchen, New York.
Spirits brands are already receiving broad TV exposure through the growing number of liquor-inspired malt beverages. The "malternatives" include Diageo's Smirnoff Ice and Brown-Forman's new Jack Daniel's Original Hard Cola.
"Because beer is allowed on TV, malt products attached to well-known liquor brands are also getting out there, and promoting those trademarks is what it's really all about," Mr. Pirko says. "It's a big hypocrisy to say it's all right to advertise malt but not liquor, and we have a whole new generation of young adults who are influenced by a wide range of media far beyond TV, so scruples about not advertising liquor on national TV will become less and less relevant over time."