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Liquor Industry Ends Its Ban on TV and Radio Advertising


December 1996

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (Discus), the trade association for the nation's largest liquor companies, decided November 7 to end its decades-long voluntary ban on television and radio liquor advertisement (Stuart Elliot, "Liquor Industry Ends Its Ad Ban In Broadcasting," New York Times, November 8, 1996, p. A1; Anthony Faiola, "Liquor Firms Drop Radio, TV Ad Ban," Washington Post, November 8, 1996, p. A1).

The hard liquor industry says it is ending the ban, which has been in effect since 1936 for radio and 1948 for television, in order to compete more effectively with the wine and beer industries. They claim that beer and wine producers have been taking hard liquor's market share. "There's no basis for letting two forms of alcohol advertising, beer and wine, on television and radio and discriminating against another form," said Fred A. Meister, president and chief executive of Discus. Beer and wine marketers spent $682.4 million to advertise on television and radio last year, compared to $227.6 million spent by liquor marketers to advertise in print and outdoor media in 1995.

"The liquor industry knows its consumption rates have come down, and now they're trying to reach younger consumers. ... They are looking for the entry-level drinker," says Sarah Kayson, director of public policy for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. "This sends a signal that the liquor industry has declared open season on kids," said George A. Hacker, director of the alcohol policies project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Hacker is urging Congress to hold hearings on a proposal by Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-MA) to make the voluntary ban a law (H.R. 3644).

Meister said that all other provisions of the industry's advertising guidelines, called the Code of Good Practice, remain unchanged. They include prohibitions against using "cartoon figures that are popular predominantly with children" or claiming "sexual prowess as a result of beverage alcohol consumption." The code also includes several provisions that caution against appeals "to persons below the legal purchase age" for buying liquor. The council maintains that its members will attempt to target adult consumers through the content, media and timing of its ads.

The Council's decision comes seven months after the Seagram Company defied the industry ban and advertised its Crown Royal Canadian Whiskey on Prime Sports Network in March. Since then, Seagram, the nation's second largest seller of distilled spirits, has been advertising several of its products on network affiliates and cable channels.

Jodie Bernstein, director of the consumer protection bureau of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), says that although liquor ads on television and radio are not prohibited, they will be scrutinized. "We believe the F.T.C. has full power to act against any alcohol-beverage advertising that is false, deceptive or in some way targets an illegal audience," said Daniel Jaffe, executive vice president and director of the Association of National Advertisers.

Representatives of the four major broadcast networks -- ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox -- all said their longstanding rules against liquor advertisements would continue. Like Seagram, other liquor companies are expected to first advertise on local stations and regional cable channels. "Individual stations make, and will continue to make, judgements every day about what is most appropriate for their audiences," said Edward O. Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters.