Radio station's hard-liquor ads: uncorking a flood?; Industry broadcast code is set aside; Boston's WITS airs vodka spots

Whiskey, vodka, and other hard-liquor advertising, long a strict ''no-no'' in American radio and television, may soon be invading the nation's airwaves.

This is a growing concern among leaders in the battle against drunken driving and other alcohol-related problems across the United States.

These activists, such as Michael F. Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., are disturbed over vodka ads during Boston Red Sox games which began in April.

The one-minute spots on station WITS are believed to be the first advertising in decades, if not ever, involving any kind of liquor except beers and wines.

While it is uncertain whether other radio or television outlets will similarly begin airing hard-liquor commercials, such a move is under serious consideration by owners of WTHR, television channel 13 in Indianapolis.

Although never outlawed, hard-liquor ads have always been kept off the airwaves voluntarily through the code of standards of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), under which such products were deemed improper for both radio and television. Both WITS and WTHR are NAB members and thus were subscribers to its standards.

But on March 3, a federal district court ruled that portions of the code violate antitrust laws. In response, the NAB set aside the code, at least temporarily, leaving individual stations and networks free to decide for themselves whether to accept hard-liquor ads or, as in the past, confine sales of liquor advertising time to beers and wines.

Those pressing to open the airwaves to all kinds of alcoholic spirits contend that the current practice is a double standard.

''They should be all on, or all off the air,'' asserts Harvey Allen, president of M. S. Walker Inc., the Somerville, Mass., firm whose vodka ads have been carried for the past two months on Boston's WITS.

Pleased with the attention the radio commercials have focused on his product, the liquor executive says that ''it is time to change'' the thrust of the ads, although he says he is no less determined to keep them on the air throughout the baseball season.

Critics of the vodka ads, which both Mr. Allen and station manager Frank Tenore maintain are in good taste, are particularly concerned because they are carried on baseball broadcasts with generally large youth audiences.

Noting that one large beer company is a prime sponsor of sports broadcasts not only in Boston but elsewhere in the country, Allen states that he and others in the hard-liquor industry ''have a right to advertise.''

''Personally I would like to see all liquor ads off radio and television,'' he adds, noting that the prospects for that are extremely unlikely.

The vodka commercials, featuring Nancy Eckersley, wife of Red Sox pitcher Dennis Eckersley, have aroused the ire of not only Mr. Jacobson and his organizatidon but other antialcohol-abuse groups across the nation, including Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) and the newer Students Against Driving Drunk (SADD).

Their efforts to get either the vodka distributor or the Boston station to cancel the ads have been rejected by both Allen and Mr. Tenore, who insist they have had few complaints or have been otherwise pressured.

''It's a non-issue,'' says the WITS general manager. ''I guess most people don't care.'' Tenore makes it clear he has no intention of turning his station into the ''liquor capital'' for Boston radio.

The Red Sox voice no objections to the vodka commercials on the broadcast of their games, according to Tenore, who concedes that the team has such veto power.

Mr. Jacobson and others in the forefront of the effort to keep hard liquor ads off radio and television are apprehensive that other broadcasters will follow the Boston station unless deterred by strong public pressure.

Neither the Federal Communications Commission nor congressional committees that oversee the telecommunications industry have indicated much interest so far in supporting the coalition's efforts to keep hard-liquor commercials off radio and television, as has been done with cigarettes.

Of particular concern to Mr. Jacobson and his colleagues is the use of status symbols and sex as a means of glamorizing liquor in broadcast commercials.

They warn that small companies, like M. S. Walker, will, through local radio and television stations, encourage larger distillers and distributors of spirits to use the broadcast media to increase their sales.

Whether WTHR becomes the nation's first television station to carry hard-liquor ads hinges on the outcome of an opinion poll now being planned in the Indianapolis area, says station manager William Dunaway.

At least one advertising agency and a hard-liquor retailer have approached the station, he reports. ''We should know which way we will go by midsummer,'' Mr. Dunaway adds.

Although partial reinstatement of the broadcasters code at some future point is possible, says Hank Roeder of NAB's Washington office, he declines to speculate what it might include.

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, a self-regulatory body within the hard-liquor industry, has a policy against the advertising of its members' products on radio or television. The Walker firm, however, is not a member of that organization.

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