The company in January broke a humorous Guinness TV spot via Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, New York, encouraging consumers to "Treat St Patrick's Day like a real holiday." The goal, the company said when it announced the campaign, was "to extend this celebratory period to an entire holiday season, such as with Halloween or Valentine's Day," said Chris Parson, Guinness brand director.
Christmas, however, was the metaphor used for the spot that showed a trio of pajama-clad young men excitedly rushing downstairs to open their holiday gifts: a keg and several six-packs of Guinness.
That portrayal of beer as a present at Christmas-traditionally a holiday focused on children-riled the Marin Institute, which claims that the ad violates Diageo's marketing code not to target kids. "If you believe the TV ad, a real holiday begins with binge drinking in the morning," said Amon Rappaport, a spokesman. "It's the appropriation of a cultural holiday in order to make drinking the only `real' way to celebrate."
The March 17 holiday is the largest for on-premise sales outside of New Year's Eve, according to Harry Schumacher, editor-publisher of Beer Business Daily, and ranks among the top six key beer holidays.
"This Guinness campaign is the latest in a long line of advertising by Diageo where it violates its own marketing code, then pulls the ads after receiving complaints," said Laurie Lieber, a spokeswoman for the Marin Institute. "Then they claim they're the good guys and that self-regulation is working. The self-regulatory process takes so long that ... by the time they get around to saying that the ad wasn't consistent with their own code the ad is already out in the environment."
The Marin Institute, which earlier went after Coors Brewing's tie-in with Miramax's "Scary Movie 2," claiming it targeted underage drinkers because the film was rated PG, calls this practice "hit-and-run" advertising. It defines "hit and run" as a marketer knowingly violating responsible marketing guidelines and shortly after pulling the ads in an attempt to circumvent the rules or accountability. That marketers and their peers review the ads only after they break in order to avoid sharing competitive secrets does little to assuage the concerns of watchdogs.
"What purpose does the marketing code serve for them, then?" said Ms. Lieber. "[Marketers] need to be held accountable somehow and the way this system works has no accountability." Marin cited earlier ads for Diageo's Goldschlager and Smirnoff that Diageo ran and pulled after receiving complaints.
The Goldschlager execution was blasted by a different industry gadfly group in part because its models didn't look older than Diageo's minimum age of 25. Diageo pulled an earlier 2003 ad for Smirnoff vodka ad via WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson, New York, that featured a mouse resembling Stuart Little.
A spokesman for Diageo acknowledged the company pulled the two ads last year and insisted that self-regulation does work. "We're proud of our record on social responsibility," he said. "We're committed to responsible marketing to adults and we take all complaints against our marketing and advertising seriously."
For the volume of ads that Diageo produces in a given year, the number of offending ads is relatively small, but the rapidly changing business environment does create a bit of a landmine for alcohol marketers, said observers.
"There's so much gray, people can't determine where they stand in terms of getting into trouble," said Tom Pirko, president of industry consultant BevMark, adding that he doesn't believe Diageo is intentionally breaking its rules. "I'm pretty certain people are beginning to think very short-term and by the time you've [broken the rules] you're already done."