Major Radio Groups Swear Off Liquor Ads: Marketers Left With Patchwork Of Smaller Stations

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Major radio station group owners are issuing blanket rejections of commercials for hard liquor, despite previously having run them without consumer complaint.

Most stations that carried spots for Seagram's Lime Twisted Gin-so far the only liquor advertiser or brand on radio-reported no complaints after running the ads this fall. But, like Philadelphia-based station group owner Entercom, they're no longer running them.

Seagram Americas ran at least four different radio ads for Lime Twisted Gin, all created by Ogilvy & Mather, New York.

`DECISIVE DECISION'

"Once the issue surfaced at the corporate level, we made a quick and decisive decision that we wouldn't accept any more of the ads going forward," said David Field, chief operating officer of Entercom.

Consequently, liquor advertisers seeking to place radio campaigns are left with a patchwork of smaller station groups, mostly those owned by and targeted to minorities, though in major markets.

That's similar to TV, where only cable outlets Black Entertainment Television and multiple-system operator Continental Cablevision have so far agreed to accept liquor advertising.

BET said hard-liquor marketers have not yet purchased media time on the channel.

POLITICAL HOT POTATO

Executives at two of the largest radio station groups-CBS/Westinghouse/Infinity Broadcasting and American Radio Systems-said they have only stopped taking the ads because the issue has become a political hot potato.

"No one knows where this will end up, and we don't want to upset the status quo," said one veteran radio executive. "I think most of us think it could mean a crackdown on beer and wine advertising mandated from Washington."

"I'll tell you where all this is going-it's heading toward beer," said the president of another radio station group, which had a station take the Seagram ads and received no complaints from the public. "And if beer ads get banished from sports on TV because Washington comes to the conclusion that too many kids can see them, that's the end of sports on free TV. . . . The revenue loss we'd have on radio is minuscule to what the TV guys are facing."

AFFECT ON YOUTH

While radio executives want to steer clear of controversy, especially as many station groups are buying stations, there is the added question of the liquor messages being heard by youth and what affect that might have on underage drinking.

Andy Kingston, station manager of alternative rocker WFNX-FM in Boston, said the Seagram commercials "weren't any different than spots we've run for wine coolers."

As at most stations contacted, the Seagram commercials ran during multiple dayparts. The ads ran in major markets, including Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Houston, Miami and San Francisco.

"Our company is a strong First Amendment advocate, and as long as the ads are legal for us to run, and they are tasteful, we will likely continue to run them," Mr. Kingston said.

"I don't think advertising of alcohol has any impact on teens-they continue to smoke in record numbers despite a ban on that. Images in popular culture have more impact," said Lee Zapis, president of Zapis Communications and general manager at urban adult contemporary WZAK-FM and urban oldies WJMO-AM, both in Cleveland. "If the guy selling the liquor is doing his job, then underage listeners shouldn't be a problem."

21% UNDER 17

Mr. Zapis said 21% of WZAK listeners are under 17 and another 17% are between 18 and 24. The numbers for listeners in those age brackets are far less on the company's other station.

The concern at African-American station groups, including Radio One and Inner City Broadcasting, focused on the need for additional revenues.

"Our billings are probably [Infinity/CBS/Westinghouse CEO] Mel Karmazin's expense account," Mr. Zapis said. "It's not like we can so easily turn any ad dollars away as they can."

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