BUSINESS

The booze tube debate

Seagram commercials stir U. S. controversy

JOHN SCHOFIELD October 21 1996
BUSINESS

The booze tube debate

Seagram commercials stir U. S. controversy

JOHN SCHOFIELD October 21 1996

The booze tube debate

Seagram commercials stir U. S. controversy

BUSINESS

A proud peacock and a humble duck take turns toddling across the TV screen. "You either have it or you don't." says a good-natured announc-

er. It seems innocent enough, but the ad for Chivas Regal scotch whisky that Montrealbased Seagram Co. Ltd. started running on two New Hampshire TV stations late last month has left critics decidedly shaken, not stirred. President Bill Clinton pointedly asked “hard-liquor manufacturers” to stay off the air to protect children, while Reed Hundt, chairman of the Federal Communications

Commission, called the distiller’s decision to begin advertising on television “a troubling development.” Groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest have mobilized, as well. “We’re going to do everything we can to get those ads off and keep them off,” says George Hacker, director of the centre’s alcohol policies project, which promotes greater awareness of the health risks posed by drinking.

There is no law in the United States that prevents distillers from flogging their wares on the air. But Seagram’s move this summer to run commercials for Crown Royal whisky on an NBC affiliate in Texas—followed last month by the Chivas Regal spots—breaks a voluntary ban on broadcast advertising that U.S. distillers adopted more than 60 years ago, in the sensitive days after Prohibition. The policy was extended to TV in 1948, when the new medium was still in its infancy.

But times have changed, argues Bevin Gove, a Seagram spokeswoman in New York City. She maintains that the TV audience is now so fragmented that ads can easily be placed to minimize exposure to under-aged viewers. Besides, she adds, audiences are already accustomed to commercials for beer and wine. The U.S. brewing industry alone spent more than $835 million on TV advertising last year, according to Adams/Jobson’s Beer Handbook, an industry guide. “Clearly, there is no legitimate reason whatever for the discrimination against spirits versus beer and wine,” says Arthur Shapiro, executive vice-president of marketing and strategy for Seagram Americas, the division that placed the TV ads.

For groups such as MADD, however, Seagram’s argument leaves a bitter taste. Katherine Prescott, the national president of MADD, does not accept Seagram’s assur-

ances that it will advertise responsibly. She says the company’s decision to use animals in its ads has too much appeal to children. MADD has given up trying to get beer ads off television: last year radio and TV broadcasters took in ad revenues estimated at $870 million. But the line must be drawn at liquor commercials, argues Prescott, whose own 16-year-old son, Jay, was run over by a drunk driver in 1981. Failure to do so, she says, will flood TV-addicted youngsters with even more messages glorifying alcohol.

So far, Seagram remains unmoved. Although

the major networks and some stations have refused the ads, the company has gradually expanded its TV advertising to include two premium brands and independent stations in New Hampshire, Texas, Iowa, Illinois and Michigan. Meanwhile, Paddington Corp., a subsidiary of Britain’s Grand Metropolitan PLC, says it is considering placing television ads for its Original Bailey’s Irish Cream. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, which has yet to remove the voluntary advertising restraint from its code of practice, has publicly sided with Seagram. The U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of free speech, the trade group argues, includes the right to sell liquor over the airwaves.

JOHN SCHOFIELD

Ottawa's ban is challenged, too

BUSINESS

It took Canadian distillers more than 60 years, and a long legal battle,

to shake off the last vestiges of Prohibition. In June, 1995, the Association of Canadian Distillers finally convinced the Federal Court to drop one of the last major marketing restrictions on the industry—a federal regulation that made it illegal for liquor companies to advertise on TV and radio.

But while the airwaves are open, liquor ads still do not appear on radio or TV, even though 1995 distilled liquor sales are 40 per cent lower than they were in 1980. Seagram, which has raised the ire of critics in the United States with its decision to break a 48-year-old moratorium on TV advertising, has no plans “at the moment" to air ads in Canada, says Ann Baril, a spokeswoman for Montreal-based Seagram Canada. Ronald Veilleux, president of the Association of Canadian Distillers, says the industry’s reticence is largely “a question of cost and affordability.” Liquor makers, he says, are less profitable than beer companies and therefore have much smaller advertising budgets.

Some health-advocacy groups would be happy to see distillers pass on TV entirely. Simone Cusenza, coordinator of the Association to Reduce Alcohol Promotion in Ontario, is angry that, under regulations expected to take effect early next year, the federal government will no longer preview alcohol ads to ensure that they are not aimed at young people and do not encourage excessive drinking. Instead, that task will go to the Canadian Advertising Foundation, a self-regulatory group. Despite the opposition, Veilleux says it is only a matter of time before distillers make the move to TV. After decades of being kept off the air, the tube is a marketing tool liquor companies will find hard to resist.

J.S.