NFL Lifts Liquor Ad Ban, Raising Pressure on Beer

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The liquor industry is finally ready for some football. Whiskey, vodka, rum and other spirits will be allowed to advertise in NFL games this season for the first time according to new league rules that give liquor a boost in its long quest to be seen as socially acceptable as beer.

The changes give spirits brands access to America's most popular pro sports league and the millions of viewing eyeballs that come with it. But liquor brands will still be treated as second-class citizens compared with beer. The number of 30-second liquor ads allowed per game is capped at four, with a limit of two ads in any quarter or within halftime, according to the rules, which which were confirmed by an NFL spokesman. The league characterized the changes as a "2017 NFL season test."

Spirits ads are also prohibited from having a football theme. Sponsorships, including those that run during programming, are prohibited.

Beer brands don't face the same restrictions, although brewers have long been prohibited from including active NFL players in their ads. Liquor ads must also include a "prominent social responsibility message." And at least 20% of ads airing during the season must "consist exclusively of social responsibility messaging." The Wall Street Journal earlier reported that the league was lifting its liquor ban.

The change comes as beer continues to lose drinkers to liquor. Beer's share of the alcohol market fell to 50% last year from 58% in 2003 on a share of servings basis, as spirits jumped to 32% from 28%, according to Nielsen. The new NFL rules could further weaken the upper hand in marketing that brewers once had.

"Beer hasn't had a response to hard liquor and continues to lose share not just in share of market, but also in share of mind," said a former beer industry executive speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Beer has to make the point clear that hard liquor is not the same and should not be treated the same as beer. This deal blurs the line even more. If this is like a football game, liquor is running up the score and beer hasn't even fielded a team, let alone put together a game plan."

Anheuser-Busch InBev, which pays a hefty price tag as the NFL's official beer sponsor, might have the most to lose. "The NFL informed us of their decision yesterday," an AB InBev spokesman said in a statement to Ad Age on Saturday. "We plan to meet with the league to discuss the new policy in more detail."

A MillerCoors spokesman said "as the beverage of moderation, beer and football have been synonymous for decades. As long as we continue to differentiate our brands, promote them responsibly and advertise effectively, we will be just fine."

The beer industry did win a key concession that will allow for flavored malt beverages to be advertised in NFL coverage. It was previously banned. However, these ads face the same restrictions as liquor ads, the NFL spokesman confirmed. While liquor and beer marketers both own flavored malt beverages, the drinks -- which include brands like Bud Light Lime-A-Rita -- have gained importance for brewers in recent years as they battle with spirits to appeal to variety-seeking millennial drinkers.

Rumblings that the NFL could lift its liquor ad ban began last year. The spirits industry has made steady gains in overcoming a social stigma that once kept its brands off TV entirely.

"This is welcomed news but not too surprising given spirits companies have partnered with individual NFL teams, and other major professional sports leagues began accepting spirits advertising more than a decade ago," said Kraig R. Naasz, president and CEO of the Distilled Spirits Council, which represents the liquor industry. "Adult fans realize alcohol is alcohol and our responsible spirits sports marketing has been met with broad public acceptance."

Liquor ads did not appear on any TV, national or local, for most of the 20th century, with the industry adhering to a self-imposed ban from 1948 to 1996. But a growing number of TV affiliates began taking ads in recent years, and spirits marketers have found plenty of opportunities on cable networks.

"It's been a slow march of hard liquor encroaching on television over the past 20 years," said a former ad buying executive for a major brewer. "So this was inevitable because networks and leagues need more revenue opportunities. The NFL was the last holdout, which the beer industry valued because it's the biggest and most popular league. So I'm sure it will be disappointing to the league official sponsor Anheuser-Busch InBev. But NFL teams have been doing sponsorship deals with hard liquor (with restrictions) so it was just a matter of time that it was acceptable on television."

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