Furor Brewing Over Seagram Plan for More TV Liquor Ads

A large white dog put an end to nearly a half-century of abstinence by the liquor industry this June when it trotted across television screens with a bottle of whisky in its mouth.

The 30-second ad for Joseph E. Seagram & Sons broke a 48-year-old pact by distilled-spirits companies to forgo TV advertising. In doing so, it triggered a furious response from legislators, parents, and advocacy groups that only subsided when the ads stopped running a month later.

Now Seagram is restarting the ads, claiming a right to access all media. That decision, observers say, will be a boon to advertising agencies - but it could also spark a public backlash against televised liquor advertising that may spread to beer and wine.

"We feel we have the right to access electronic advertising, in a responsible way, in the same manner [as] beer and wine," says Seagram spokeswoman Bevin Grove, who adds that the spots will air after 9 p.m. "We have the ability to target the appropriate adult audience with our advertising."

In the June ad, aired on a Corpus Christi, Texas, station, a newspaper-carrying hunting dog identified as an "obedience school graduate" trots across a stage, followed by a second dog carrying Crown Royal whisky and identified as a "valedictorian."

"An ad in June? Graduation time? With a dog graduating? You've got to wonder who they're targeting," scoffs Sarah Kayson of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD).

According to 1994-95 figures from the National Parents' Resource Institute for Drug Education, 60 percent of high school seniors drink alcohol. "The last thing in the world kids need is more encouragement to drink," Ms. Kayson says.

While Seagram won't comment on advertising plans, Advertising Age magazine has reported that the June commercial will be part of an expanded fall campaign that will air in Boston and Houston, and possibly in Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Chicago.

Fred Meister, president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), insists that television advertising is the industry's right. "There has never been a federal prohibition of such advertising," he says. "In fact, the First Amendment protects this type of commercial speech."

Hard-liquor firms spend heavily in the cutthroat battle for market share. In the first six months of 1996, they shelled out $87.8 million to publicize their wares, according to Competitive Media Reporting. Despite the hefty spending, their sales have been sinking steadily over the past 15 years, a trend that might have prompted Seagram to break the voluntary ban that dates from 1948.

Though there's no documented history explaining the stricture, DISCUS public relations director Elizabeth Board says it began with radio in 1936, just after Prohibition. At the time, liquor distillers, grateful to have their licenses back and on shaky political ground, offered the olive branch of a voluntary ban on radio advertising. "When television came along," says Ms. Board, "they said, 'Oh, this is radio with pictures.' "

Times have changed, says Kayson of the NCADD. "Broadcast is the most powerful media we have; the less kids are exposed the better." While a ban on TV liquor advertising is not on the NCADD agenda, Kayson says a public backlash against youth-oriented advertising of all types of alcohol is a real possibility.

Kirk Davidson, a business professor at Maryland's Mount St. Mary's College, agrees. "It could mobilize all the anti-alcohol forces to the point where they could ban beer and wine advertising as well."

That might be part of the strategy. "Liquor is very disadvantaged compared with beer and wine," says Chuck Ross, media editor at Advertising Age. "If [Seagram] is able to get these ads accepted without backlash, they've leveled the playing field. If there is a backlash, they're hoping people in Washington would ban beer ads and there would again be a level playing field."

Seagram's Ms. Grove says public reaction has amounted to a "handful" of phone calls, but the rest of the industry is staying on the sidelines. "We have no current plans to advertise," says Carolyn Panzer, spokeswoman for United Distillers, home to Dewars and Johnny Walker scotch brands. "But we fully support Seagram's right to advertise in any media."

Mothers Against Drunk Driving is aware of the ads but is waiting to take a position. "We're worried about the spin they might put on academics and drinking, but we haven't seen the ads yet," says spokeswoman Betty Sparr.

US Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts has already established his stance, introducing legislation in June to ban hard-liquor advertising on radio and TV.

The bill fizzled, but Mr. Kennedy plans to send letters pressing Boston area broadcasters to reject the ads. "Alcohol remains the No. 1 drug of choice for teens," he says. "It's a shame that Seagram doesn't see the problem. They see the profit."

At Corpus Christi's KRIS-TV station, owner T. Frank Smith says that not only was Kennedy's proposal unconstitutional, but that most people don't care about liquor ads on TV.

"We ran a poll, got 6,000 people to call us," Mr. Smith recalls. "Seventy percent said it was OK to advertise hard liquor, just like beer and wine." Smith says he'll run Seagram ads again this fall. "Why is it wrong to advertise liquor," he asks, "when it's OK to sell it?"

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