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A better beer ad code

Changes to the Beer Institute's voluntary advertising code announced last month are prudent -- to say the least. Addressing the issue of the presence of kids in the TV viewing audience when beer commercials air is necessary, and the new code provisions specifically recognize that brewers and their media buyers have a responsibility to monitor on a regular basis the audience composition of the programs on their buy list.

Beer marketers discovered in the past year that where they place TV spots involves far more than just reach and frequency. It also involves politics and public policy and the campaign to curb underage drinking. In today's charged political environment, sloppy ad placement breeds headlines and government inquiries and feeds charges that beer marketing "targets" underage drinkers.

When a Stroh Brewery Co. ad for Schlitz Malt Liquor aired last year during MTV's "My So-Called Life," a program aimed at teen girls, it triggered a chain reaction that led to a Federal Trade Commission inquiry. While Stroh said the incident was an isolated mistake, it snowballed into a wider examination. An Advertising Age survey of beer commercials on MTV during one week in September 1996 revealed that, in some time periods, beer commercials appeared in programs where 53% of the audience was under the legal drinking age.

Brewers said then that their TV buys are based on historic audience data or on the network's estimates of likely audience composition, and that examining an isolated one-week period was "simplistic and misleading." But that's not true: More care was needed to weed out programs and dayparts where kids were potentially significant parts of the audience. Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing Co. soon pulled their ad schedules from MTV and shifted some buys to sister cable network VH-1, where the audience skews older.

The Beer Institute code changes formalize what individual brewers seem to have done on their own. What's important is that the code clearly states that beer advertisers must examine audience demographic data at least twice a year to see that ads are indeed reaching an adult audience with less spillover among young people. (Separate language requires that Internet sites sponsored by brewers also to aim at adults.)

The changes will not satisfy critics who favor new government curbs on all forms of TV advertising for alcoholic beverages. But with the public, and with lawmakers and regulators with an open mind, these actions give beer marketers a stronger platform to stand on.

Super :30s

The price of a super bowl :30 -- $1.3 million for NBC's Super Bowl XXXII next month -- is always impressive, as is the list of advertisers that year-in, year-out emerge to pay the big bucks to be part of TV's biggest single extravaganza.

Yet how high is high? This is the last Super Bowl under the current four-year TV rights contracts that saw ABC, ESPN, Fox, NBC and TNT pay out $4.3 billion in rights fees. It's expected the new package could cost the networks 50% more, or nearly $7 billion over four years.

There's a limit to what will be paid even for Super Bowl ads, and the NFL and the networks are wise to look for ways to protect advertisers from the full impact of the higher rights fees (witness NBC talking with affiliates about sharing in the costs). But even with that, the real challenge for advertisers, networks and the NFL is to find new promotions, tie-ins and strategies to leverage the value of those :30s whose already lofty price is bound to be