Alcohol ad hangover

Mar 25, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Watchdog groups and at least one lawmaker are stepping up pressure on Congress to regulate all televised alcohol ads now that NBC has abandoned its short-lived policy of accepting hard-liquor spots.
“MADD is calling on NBC and every other television network to improve their standards by establishing tough restrictions and to apply those restrictions to the entire alcohol industry,” said Mothers Against Drunk Driving President-elect Wendy Hamilton.
She made her comments at a Capitol Hill press briefing last Thursday, the day after NBC announced its reversal. She and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., urged Congress to hold hearings and to pass pending legislation that would fund a national media campaign featuring anti-drinking messages.
They’re upset that marketers often use cartoon characters and animals such as frogs in alcohol ads to appeal to kids. They’re also worried about malt-based beverages or “alco-pops,” such as Bacardi Silver and Smirnoff Ice, which are marketed under spirits brands but are not considered hard liquor, thereby skirting a voluntary network ban on booze ads.
The network’s unexpected announcement appears to have emboldened these and other alcohol-ad critics, such as the watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest, who want to turn NBC’s retreat into a broader victory.
At deadline, congressional power brokers were keeping the door open to possible hearings on alcohol ads but insisted Congress would not mandate ad restrictions.
“Congress may urge broadcasters to demand more precautionary warnings in beer ads, but they’re not going to tinker with the Constitution,” said Ken Johnson, spokesman for House Energy and Commerce panel Chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La.
He said any new guidelines governing when alcohol ads can air and what content is appropriate would be voluntary.
Electronic Media reported March 18 that Rep. Tauzin was planning a hearing on NBC’s booze ad policy, but those plans have been scrapped due to the network’s about-face.
Congressional pressure
Meanwhile, EM has learned that the Senate Commerce Committee, headed by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., had informed NBC it would hold hearings and explore legislative options if the network didn’t back down. It was unclear at deadline, however, whether Senate Commerce would examine the larger issue of alcohol ads.
According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, about 400 broadcast stations have aired hard-liquor ads in the past five years, and the spots regularly appear on several cable channels.
NBC, which said its reversal resulted from congressional pressure, announced its policy last December, immediately triggering opposition on Capitol Hill, with Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Ms. Roybal-Allard leading the charge. NBC began running distilled-spirits ads in December in the form of public service messages and was planning to air actual hard-liquor ads in April.
“We are, therefore, ending the first phase of branded social responsibility advertising on our network and will not proceed into the next phase of carrying product advertising for distilled spirits,” NBC said. The network did not return repeated phone calls.
Peter Cressy, president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, said NBC and Diageo, the first company to agree to advertise booze on the network, “are to be commended for responsible alcohol advertising.
“There would have been more social responsibility messages about drinking on television than ever before,” he said. “Sadly, a few misguided critics through their attacks on NBC have undercut this effort.”
Diageo said in a statement: “We are very proud of our advertising and the support it has received. We will continue our discussions with NBC and the other networks as we remain focused on attaining equal access on the airwaves.”