"I want to sit down with Edgar [Bronfman Jr., president-CEO of Seagram parent Joseph E. Seagram & Sons] and have a cup of coffee with him and find out his intent with these ads," FCC Chairman Reed Hundt told Advertising Age last week.
Seagram ran a TV commercial this summer on a single station in Corpus Christi, Texas, and just last week began running new spots in more cities, including Boston, the nation's sixth-largest market (AA, Sept. 23).
By doing that, the company has broken a 48-year-old voluntary ban on radio and TV spots for hard liquor agreed to by the members of the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., including Seagram.
WORRIES ABOUT YOUTH
Mr. Hundt said one of his major concerns is the ads may increase alcohol usage among the nation's youth.
"I think the correlation between increased drinking by young people and auto accidents is indisputable," Mr. Hundt said, wondering "what steps is Edgar taking to ensure that the power of TV advertising" is not swaying young people to drink alcohol.
A government official close to the FCC said Mr. Hundt believes the federal agency has the authority to ban the ads if it wishes, or make sure they only be shown late at night. Mr. Hundt didn't directly address that.
At least one station, WNDS-TV, Derry, N.H., which serves the Boston market, is reportedly broadcasting spots for Seagram's Chivas Regal scotch only after 9 p.m.
But FCC Commissioner Susan Ness doesn't think the commission has jurisdiction over liquor ads on TV. "I don't believe that's something we could have a say about," she said.
A Seagram spokeswoman said Mr. Bronfman hasn't heard from Mr. Hundt, and said the company had no response to Mr. Hundt's comments.
U.S. Rep Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), who has proposed legislation to control liquor advertising, attacked Seagram's latest move last week.
"It's a shame that Seagram doesn't see the problem. They see the profit," Rep. Kennedy told Advertising Age.
TRYING TO PLACE ADS
The interest from Washington comes as two Seagram agencies, Grey Advertising and TBWA Chiat/Day, both New York, continue to try to buy time for TV ads for Seagram's Crown Royal and Chivas Regal, respectively.
Last week, Grey called a number of cable networks looking for placement opportunities, but it's not clear whether it found any takers.
Another part of the media strategy is to get cable operators to insert the ads on local systems.
TBWA Chiat/Day has approached a local Continental Cablevision system in Jacksonville, Fla., about taking the Chivas ads. A spokeswoman said the cable system is still considering the proposal.
But John Malone, president-CEO of Tele-Communicatons, Inc., the U.S.' largest cable operator, said he disagreed with Seagram's airing of liquor spots.
"I don't think it would be prudent for us to show them," he said.
Joe Collins, chairman-CEO of Time Warner Cable, the nation's second largest cable operator, said, "It depends what the broadcasters do. If the ads become accepted in the broadcast community, I think we'd have to look at taking them."
LIQUOR BY WIRE
While cable operators might have a problem with a blatant hard-liquor commercial, they seem to have no problem accepting spots for Liquor By Wire, a national liquor gift-delivery service.
The company recently bought more than 2,000 local cable spots in New York and Chicago. The spots are scheduled to air Nov. 11 through Dec. 13 on CNN, CNBC, Headline News, USA, TBS
Creative for the in-house ad features narrative describing the service, with a tabletop view of more than 20 brands of liquor offered, including close ups of Remy Martin cognac and Moet et Chandon champagne.
Contributing: Ira Teinowitz, Bill McDowell.