Editorial: Diageo puts heat on the NFL

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Diageo's groundbreaking sponsorship deal with the National Football League's Washington Redskins may yet unravel, but once again it puts the issue front and center: Why should distilled-spirits ads be treated differently than ads for beer and wine? Responsibly advertised, and with logical standards that reflect the audiences being reached, why indeed?

Of course, this is no dry debate on the merits. There's plenty of emotion and distrust involved, reflecting concern among public-health advocates and industry critics about already high existing levels of marketing for alcoholic beverages.

Liquor commercials are gradually winning acceptance on more and more local TV and radio stations and cable TV outlets. Yet Diageo last spring was left standing at the altar by NBC executives, who got cold feet after agreeing to break the taboo on network TV ads for liquor. Now it is the NFL, long a critical marketing venue for beer marketers, that's on the spot, put there by the Redskins. (Is it just coincidence that the Redskins are owned by former ad-agency chieftain Daniel Snyder?) And Diageo is once again saying to critics of its push for parity: Bring it on!

In the London headquarters of Diageo, which has advertised drinks on TV and radio outside the U.S. for many years, the American distinction between "hard" liquor and "drinks of moderation" (beer and wine) must seem a curious throwback to Prohibition days. And it is. The American liquor industry's "equivalency" PR campaign, stressing that alcohol is alcohol, whether it is in beer, wine or vodka, is gradually eroding old public prejudices. But this remains a hot-button issue.

While Diageo is justified in pressing the parity issue, it is also potentially opening the door to a wider public discussion of alcoholic-beverage marketing, one that could examine more than who gets to advertise in football arenas and who does not.

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