In 1936, following the repeal of Prohibition, the liquor industry voluntarily agreed not to advertise on radio. Twelve years later, it expanded the ban to television and for 48 years stuck to the agreement.
Now one company, Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, has had enough. It's running a series of 30-second commercials for Crown Royal whiskey on an NBC affiliate in Corpus Christi, Texas. (The affiliate is acting independently of the network.)
The reaction to Seagram's move has been largely negative. President Clinton made a plea to the liquor industry in general and to Seagram in particular to uphold the voluntary ban for the sake of children. Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts has proposed legislation banning all liquor ads on TV and radio.
Liquor advertising is just one of several free-speech cases making the news. A special federal court recently ruled that speech must be as free on the Internet as anywhere else and that government attempts to limit it - such as the Communications Decency Act - are "profoundly repugnant."
The motives behind the decency act were commendable, as are those behind legislation to keep liquor advertising off radio and TV. But recourse that does not risk a constitutional challenge on free speech grounds seems more likely to work. Keeping children from seeing what they're better off not seeing can be done without government interference - filtering software, for example, in the case of the Internet, and an industry rededicated to a voluntary ban in the case of liquor advertising.
All four broadcast networks, to their credit (as well as for their financial benefit) have said they will sustain the voluntary ban.
Though hard liquor ads could be a huge source of new revenue, broadcasters know they face a potential backlash from the public and from Washington (in the form of legislation that would end profitable beer and wine ads, which would be welcome.)
Let's hope they mean it when they say liquor ads are not worth the consequences.