Absolut explores running TV spots

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Absolut TV.

TBWA Chiat/Day, New York, has been pitching a number of cable networks, including CNN, Comedy Central, E! and Bravo, about a TV campaign for Seagram Beverage Co.'s Absolut vodka.

It's a gutsy pitch, since there is a decades-old voluntary ban on hard liquor advertising on U.S. broadcast and cable TV. But recent legal decisions in the U.K. and Canada to permit TV advertising for alcoholic spirits may have U.S. repercussions, possibly leading to revisions of a ban followed by most industry members of the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S.

Still, Absolut's proposal has so far met with absolutely no takers.

"No one wants to be the first network to break the embargo," said a sales executive at one of the cable networks.

Bravo, which primarily runs Public Broadcasing Service-like billboard ads, had come close to closing a deal with Absolut, "but the Bravo lawyers were very concerned about the cable operators and didn't want them to have any problems from their local cities and towns," said one insider.

"We have no current plans to go on TV," said Arthur Shapiro, exec VP-marketing services for the House of Seagram. But Mr. Shapiro didn't deny that in the last six months TBWA Chiat/Day has been soliciting cable networks on behalf of Absolut.

"Smart marketers and smart agencies are always exploring all options," he said.

The storyboard the agency was pitching showed a Christmas scene that led up to a shot of the Brooklyn Bridge. The bridge towers were Absolut bottles. The closer read "Absolut Brooklyn."

"It was very classy, an extension of their print ads," said one cable sales executive.

Another reason no cable networks wanted to touch the ads, insiders said, was that Congress only recently passed the new telecommunications bill, "and no one wanted the switchboard on Capitol Hill lit up by pressure groups because of the ads."

HOT TOPIC

The voluntary ban has been the subject of much discussion, said Elizabeth Board, director of the Distilled Spirits Council.

"There are lots of new technology issues to consider," she said. "If you're reading a magazine over the computer on a TV screen . . . are you seeing advertisements on TV? It's getting to the point where we don't know what TV is anymore."

Beer and wine marketers, which do advertise on TV, have a competitive edge over hard-hit liquor marketers.

"The spirits industry is in a decline and has been for a long time, and spirits marketers are handicapped in not being able to get the message out," said Frank C. Walters, research director at industry newsletter Impact.

Despite the ban, Domecq Importers, which doesn't belong to the spirits council, recently broadcast ads on Spanish-language TV and radio in the U.S.

Domecq's Hispanic TV advertising by Robles Communications, New York, for Presidente, Don Pedro, Azteca de Oro and Felipe brandies and Matusalem rum, ended about three months ago, said Kevin Rockoff, marketing director.

UNITED STUDIES OPTIONS

"We're looking at our international experience" with TV advertising, to determine the viability of similar campaigns in the U.S., said Carolyn Panzer, United Distillers' director of public affairs. The ban on TV advertising has been in place since 1948.

United Distillers includes such brands as Gordon's gin and Scoresby scotch.

But another liquor marketer isn't looking to stir up changes.

"Heublein strongly believes in the [Distilled Spirits Council] code regarding the voluntary ban on broadcast advertising," a spokesman said. "However, we feel obliged to listen to discussion regarding this potential change in the code."

Heublein's Jose Cuervo tequila is advertised on some closed-circuit TV networks, but "for us to consider any change in the code that would allow broadcast advertising, we'd need to be convinced that the majority of the public officials, regulators and public at large have no problem with it," the spokesman said. "We're not sure of that right now."

Ira Teinowitz contributed to this story.

Copyright March 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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