Should liquor be advertised on TV?

As alcohol consumption rises, experts worry about NBC's decision to show first liquor ad in 50 years.

NBC's "Saturday Night Live" has been known for producing its fair share of controversies over the years. But over the weekend the show became controversial for something other than its comedy. During the broadcast, NBC made history by airing an ad sponsored by a hard liquor company.

The Smirnoff ad came shortly after NBC announced late last week that it would be the first major broadcast network to drop a more than 50-year-old voluntary ban on hard-liquor advertising.

In the last five years, whiskey and other spirits have been slowly making their way back onto TV, thanks to the distilled spirits industry lifting its own self-imposed ban and making them available on cable and local networks. But the NBC decision, a major change for broadcasters, has renewed debate about whether televised alcohol advertisements spur an increase in the level of alcohol consumption. It comes at a time when the use of alcohol is up in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks.

"For the networks to do it at this time adds another level of irresponsibility.... The timing couldn't be worse," says Joseph Califano, president of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, which released a study this month showing an increased demand for alcohol and drug treatment in 13 states and four major cities since Sept. 11.

The concern among consumer advocates is that the other networks will now follow suit. "It threatens to open the floodgates of network television to liquor ads," says George Hacker, alcohol policies project director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who fears that television ads could serve to further normalize drinking of distilled liquor, especially among young adults. Though NBC has drawn up a strict set of guidelines designed to make the ads less attractive to the young, Mr. Hacker says that "the other networks may not be so willing to impose those restrictions when they start smelling the money."

So far, none of the other major networks have indicated they plan to accept similar ads. But broadcasters, like other media, are facing an ad slump right now - with some estimates suggesting the percent drop in media ads this year will be the largest since the late 1930s. But NBC, owned by General Electric, says the new policy is not a result of that. The network says Guinness UDV, the makers of Smirnoff, approached it - NBC didn't go courting the company.

NBC says that the amount of money that will come the network's way is small change when compared to the overall ad budget of the four main networks. According to figures from NBC, assuming the five biggest distilled spirits companies spend half their current ad budgets on TV - about $200 million - that's only a small portion of the combined $15 billion ad revenue of the networks. "Not a game-changer," says Kassie Canter, an NBC spokeswoman.

Beer advertising has been on television for decades. Still, groups that monitor health and consumer issues say there is a correlation between the use of alcohol and the increase in beer and wine advertising over the years. Mr. Hacker says that decades ago it was hard liquor that was primary source of alcohol consumed by Americans. Today, it is beer.

NBC anticipated public concern and came up with a 19-item list of guidelines for distilled alcohol advertisers.

"Guinness UDV ... were willing to work with us to develop these standards. They understood that they needed to be socially responsible. And that's how we got to where we are," says Ms. Canter. Among them are that the actors in the commercials be at least 30 years old; that the ads appear primarily only between the hours of 9 to 11 p.m. Eastern and on "The Tonight Show;" and that no one is shown drinking in the ads.

But in the days since the guidelines have been made public, critics have doubted about how effective they will be. They point out that 9 p.m. Eastern is only 8 p.m. in the Midwest, for example.

"These standards sound nice, and certainly are a step ahead of where we are today with beer ads," says Mr. Hacker. But he says some of them, like the age restriction, aren't necessarily as good as they sound: "Just the age of the characters themselves doesn't mean kids won't learn about drinking from these message."

In studies, his organization has found that teens respond to how characters are acting, no matter how old they look. If they are having a hip party, as some alcohol ads on TV already portray, they say that looks to them like teen behavior.

Before the ads start airing in earnest on NBC, another of the guidelines must be met: For four months in advance the advertiser must air only "social responsibility" messages. After that, 20 percent of the ads must include those messages. Smirnoff's spot on Saturday night said, "select a designated driver - from your friends at Smirnoff."

Mr. Califano is among critics who are in favor of federal regulation or legislation much like the ban on tobacco ads. "It's a sad day for American television, that it's so profit driven that it does something like this," Mr. Califano says. "It's going to create a tremendous increase in alcohol abuse among kids and adults."

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