A ban totters

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The opening of TV to ads for distilled spirits is an evolution both inevitable and reasonable. It reached a milestone when NBC in December became the first major broadcast network to accept liquor ads for national airing. Now it will be TV executives and liquor marketers that determine how turbulent this evolution becomes.

Once the distilled spirits industry decided in 1996 that it would no longer voluntarily abstain from TV and radio advertising, it became only a matter of time before the gatekeepers in TV standards departments adjusted their thinking, too. If it was suitable to accept beer and wine ads, by what standard were ads for whisky or vodka excluded? Since then, liquor commercials have spread slowly-from local TV stations and cable TV systems to national cable networks-without triggering a serious public outcry. But there is still room for trouble as NBC moves to make liquor an acceptable network ad category.

The key questions are where the ads appear, how many there are and how they are done. TV and radio executives can, and should, write detailed rules on these issues. NBC has sensibly opted to confine liquor ads initially to shows where 85% of the audience is over age 21 (most often to shows that air after 9 p.m.). NBC also will apply controls to ad creative, barring animation and the use of celebrities that have significant teen-age followings, among other restrictions.

No matter how quiescent the broad viewing public may seem, TV managers and liquor marketing executives face trouble if they ever forget that alcoholic beverages, all of them, are controversial products. Sensible rules that reflect society's serious concerns about abusive or irresponsible drinking, and that recognize there are teens in the audience, are absolutely essential. Anything less will delay the day when liquor is fully accepted as a TV ad category.

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