Liquor industry ends era of responsible ads

When just about anyone can complete the jingle “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz…” and a cowboy appearing on a billboard without any text is universally understood as a symbol for cigarettes, one realizes just how much power advertisements wield over the American psyche. That’s why last week’s decision by the hard liquor industry to start advertising on radio and television has hefty ramifications. In commencing broadcast advertisement, the liquor industry embarks on a path that could very possibly lead to the destabilization of the advertising industry and increased government intervention in what Americans see and hear.
On Nov. 7, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, the hard liquor trade association also known as Discus, struck down a self-imposed ad ban that had been in place since 1936 for radio and 1948 for TV. Discus’ decision came after Seagram aired ads for Crown Royal Whiskey on an NBC affiliate in Corpus Christi, Texas in June. The industry, which has seen a 27.7 percent drop in hard liquor consumption in the past fifteen years, is now preparing Christmas advertisements intended to air throughout the holiday season.
The move toward broadcast liquor ads was spurned by both the government and television networks. The four major networks — NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox (as well as all the major Twin Cities stations) — have decided to refuse ads from any of the hard liquor companies. Reed Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, threatened government intervention if the industry continued its drive to run TV commercials.
Until last week, the Discus ban was an excellent example of responsible marketing. Out of concern and respect for its customers, the hard liquor industry policed itself. Born of a sensitivity to advertising strategies for liquor, a product for a very specific customer base, Discus maintained the singular and unique ban by using media that are more selective than broadcast communication. Now that feeling of responsibility is gone and the floodgates have opened.
Local stations are now treading a delicate and unstable tightrope. Their refusal of ads today does not guarantee a refusal tomorrow, and once they start accepting ads it becomes nearly impossible to stem the tide as other stations are seduced by advertising dollars. There are more than 1,000 local stations and cable outlets nationwide, many of which are in dire need of the revenue that liquor advertising could bring them. As soon as any local station decides to air a hard liquor ad, competitors in that market will likely follow suit. This will, of course, lead to government involvement in liquor advertising, as Hundt suggests Congress may need to legislate the broadcast standards for the ads.
Essentially, Discus has shifted the responsibility of good advertising standards from itself to the media and government. In choosing the path of least resistance to higher revenues they have opened up the door to the same legislative quagmire surrounding tobacco ads. While hard liquor manufacturers may have a constitutional right to advertise their product on television and radio, they’ve taken a step backward by abandoning a 50-year standard which both stabilized the industry and protected the public.