Spirits Group Lambasts Move as 'Disservice to the American Public'

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- As the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving was preparing to release the results of a study showing public support for stricter alcohol ad standards, NBC today announced it was scuttling its plan to run hard-liquor advertising.

NBC had previously created a stir with its December announcement that it would become the first TV network to air hard-liquor ads.

In a surprise statement today, the network, a unit of General Electric Co., cited congressional requests from the "bipartisan leadership" of the House and Senate commerce committees as the reason it had suddenly rescinded its new alcohol policy. The company said it was also pulling the "social responsibility" ads it has been running since December for Smirnoff vodka, a product of Diageo's Guinness UDV North America.

'Disservice to the American public'
The Distilled Spirits Council of the

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U.S., meanwhile, called NBC's decision "unfortunate" and a "disservice to the American public," but implied the move was only a temporary setback.

"NBC and Diageo are to be commended for responsible alcohol advertising. There would have been more social responsibility messages about drinking on television that ever before," said Council President Peter Cressy. "Sadly a few misguided critics through their attacks on NBC have undercut this effort."

He said that over the last five years more than 400 broadcast stations and cable systems reaching 67% of households have aired distilled spirits advertising.

NBC hard-liquor guidelines
In December, NBC, in a break with industry practice, accepted hard-liquor advertising from Diageo. At the same time, NBC issued guidelines: only programs where at least 85% of viewers are 21 or older would have the ads, and distilled spirits advertisers had run four months of social responsibility spots before starting regular product ads.

Diageo could have begun Smirnoff product ads April 15.

Today's announcement came on the eve of a press conference at which MADD officials and U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., were planning to urge broadcasters to adopt stricter policies for all alcohol advertising.

Congressional pressure
When NBC announced its policy, the plan drew little attention from either the Federal Communications Commission or from Congress. But in February, 13 congressmen sent General Electric Co.'s NBC a stern letter warning of possible recriminations if the network goes ahead with its plan to air liquor ads in April.

No other action, though, had been planned. Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said recently he had no hearings scheduled. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who was the main critic in the House, had pressed for a hearing. While one had been scheduled in the House, not date had been set.

Today Rep. Wolf praised NBC.

"I applaud the decision of NBC to not go forward with its plans to air commercials for hard liquor," he said in the statement. "It is the right decision for the right reasons. I had hoped NBC would ultimately abandon its plans.

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