Mothers Against Drunk Driving last week urged Congress to proceed with alcohol advertising hearings. It also revised its alcohol ad guidelines for print and broadcast to add measures NBC initially proposed-including limits on when ads run; a ban on cartoon characters and animals in ads; and a mandated minimum age for actors. "Why didn't NBC apply its responsibility standards for liquor ads to advertisements for other alcoholic beverages?" asked Wendy Hamilton, MADD's president elect.
Ironically, beer marketers feared introduction of hard-liquor ads on network TV could put them under a spotlight, but it is actually withdrawal of such spots that is bringing the heat.
MADD and other advocacy groups hope Congress will act either to pressure alcohol advertisers or to fund an anti-alcohol ad campaign similar to the government campaign against drugs.
But Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., said his concerns were alleviated by NBC's reversal and withdrew his request for a House committee hearing on alcohol advertising.
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NBC's announcement March 20 that it would suspend plans to accept hard liquor advertising came a month before Diageo's Guinness-UDV-North America would have begun airing product ads. Its agencies were developing network TV spots for Smirnoff vodka, Johnnie Walker scotch, Baileys Irish Cream liqueur and Crown Royal whiskey.
In its statement, NBC said, "the bipartisan leadership of the House and Senate Commerce Committee asked NBC to reconsider our policy on distilled spirits advertising and to continue discussions with various public health and interest groups. We have agreed to do that." The General Electric Co. network didn't rule out revisiting the issue.
But despite a letter signed by Rep. Wolf and 12 other members of congress, there had been no vast congressional outcry, and future hearings appeared to be perfunctory. That led some to suggest NBC was worried about brewer reaction and prospects for congressional action to cap the number of TV stations it could own.
Alan Wurtzel, president of NBC research and media development, said the decision was based on other considerations: "It was a complicated issue, and there was a lot that had to be discussed. We had a history with beer and wine, and we knew how to handle it responsibly, and that really wasn't what this was about."
U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, had wanted brewers in hearings on ad issues, according to Ken Johnson, one of his aides. "We asked NBC to reassess its position, that the opposition was beginning to organize itself and a fight was brewing," said Mr. Johnson.
The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., had warned NBC that if it didn't act he would look at legislative options.
Beer Marketer's Insights quoted Anheuser-Busch Chairman August Busch III at a national sales meeting warning that the brewer's advertising was being "jeopardized by the self-serving efforts of [Diageo]." A-B declined to comment.
Peter Cressy, president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., last week called NBC's decision "unfortunate," saying, "This decision fails to recognize that alcohol is alcohol." Brewers and wine trade groups rejected MADD's guidelines.