Why TV execs are turning to liquor ads
By Chris Giblin
During this year’s Grammys on Feb. 9, CBS broke its self-imposed ban on spirits advertising during broadcast TV by running an ad for Absolut Vodka. It was the first time CBS ran a liquor ad on primetime television in over 60 years. The ad was seen all over the country except in a few select areas where local stations removed it.
Since then, dozens of religious, public-policy and substance-abuse organizations have signed on to a letter expressing disappointment in CBS for running the ad. These groups cited the inclusion of musical appearances by performers like Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus as reason for concern, since such musicians have a base of popularity that is far underage. Attitudes toward such ads have been slowly changing in recent years.
The liquor industry lifted its own voluntary ban on advertising on TV and radio in 1996. At the time, the four major broadcast networks vowed to continue keeping such ads off their stations altogether, but those policies have changed since.
Earlier this year, the NBA began allowing sponsorship from liquor brands, including courtside liquor advertising, and team marks can now be mixed with liquor brands. The NBA was only following the lead of other major sports organizations such as MLB, NASCAR, and the NHL, and there is debate over whether liquor ads will make their way into the NFL next season.
So why are so many voluntary bans on liquor ads disappearing these days?
“Have you checked the economy lately?” said Scott Hamula, a professor of advertising and strategic communications at Ithaca College.
“Things are really tough in terms of advertising dollars,” he said. “When we say that, that means magazines and newspapers folding. They don’t fold because advertising dollars are flowing through the front door; it’s because it’s just not there.”
The recession has hit all aspects of the economy, so as revenues have begun stagnating for industries such as professional sports and the major networks, executives have turned to liquor for new ways to generate money. Not that we will start seeing brands vying to become “the official scotch of the New York Yankees” any time soon, but it’s hard to say how desperate sports teams and the media might get if the economy continues to tank.
Though this new advertising cannot totally be seen as a malicious act since it is fueled by
practicality and today’s economic environment, it does pose questions about morality and image in advertising.
But if the economic outlook continues to worsen, networks and major sports teams may increasingly elect to scrap the “clean” image they have always tried to have and accept liquor advertising. Hamula compared CBS’s use of the ad for Absolut Vodka during the Grammys to the major networks’ higher acceptance of informercial advertising.
“They’ve never done that before [because] that’s looked at as kind of tacky,” he said. “The networks don’t accept that kind of stuff typically but now they are because it’s a tough time out there.”
On the surface, such new relationships being struck up between liquor companies and media industries seem tolerable, established out of basic capitalistic needs to make TV shows, run sports teams, and sell liquor. It is also in the best interest of liquor advertisers to seek out the most appropriate times and places to air their ads, like during a comedy or drama that aims for an audience of young to middle aged adults, staying away from shows that attract a child-heavy audience. Spirits advertising, in fact, has self-regulatory bodies that set the standard for alcohol advertising in media to programming where at least 70 percent of viewers are of age.
However, these standards do not represent legal regulations, and a great deal of liquor advertising goes after a young, entry-level audience, which will inevitably also appeal to teens–as much as alcohol companies would not like to admit.
“That’s exactly who they target,” Richard Yoast, director of the American Medical Association’s Department of Primary Prevention and Healthy Lifestyles said. “You know, college students or college-age kids, and sometimes they talk about the product but mostly they sell them through the association with other things that are positive. They never show any negative impacts, I mean, nobody ever becomes an alcoholic. You hardly ever see anybody drunk getting sick, getting injured, [or] being rejected because they’re drunk.”
Of course, showing those things wouldn’t make for an especially economically viable commercial, however true they are. According to Hamula, the more widely-accepted advertisement of beer has changed in that time.
“In my own observations, there’s been more sex appeal in a lot of beer advertising,” he said. “I mean, sex appeal’s relevant for a perfume but not for a beer… A lot of [other companies] are using borderline inappropriate humor, a lot of potty-type jokes, things like that, and we didn’t have that before. There used to be more focus on attributes instead of image.”
Likewise, liquor advertising has gone from concentrating on substance to sex appeal and an image of high class. Liquor ads of the 1970s, for example, utilized sex appeal, but those were the days when they were kept off TV and radio. Other advertising methods were used more often, sometimes with laughable results. J & B Scotch claimed it was “the antidote to road rage” (as recalled by comedian Patton Oswalt) and Gordon’s Vodka ran a magazine ad featuring a hawk glaring at the reader with the forbidding slogan, “The vodka better be Gordon’s.”
Today, however, print and TV liquor ads are nearly always rife with images of style, class, and sex. Grey Goose looks to represent elegance, while Bacardi depicts scenes of wild, sexy nightlife. And although these ads cater to a 20-something audience, there is no doubt that such sophistication and sex appeal can also capture the attention of teenagers.
In fact, it doesn’t take much perception to realize that a Bacardi ad depicting a man doing a body shot off an attractive woman will probably gain more attention from a curious 15-year-old than, say, a recently married 25-year-old. And, as Yoast mentioned, such ads obviously don’t depict any consequences that would be self-evident to experienced drinkers. In the ads, it’s easy to receive the interpretation that drinking will make you fun and will put you in an environment with all sorts of attractive strangers w
ho want you around. This, unfortunately, just isn’t true.
Regardless, it seems the economic downturn is starting to bring liquor ads onto the same level as beer, which has been prevalent in mainstream media for decades. With new money to be made, the media continues to cautiously accept liquor advertising as time goes by, and despite the backlash toward major networks for slowly accepting liquor ads during certain times and shows, major controversy has been kept at bay for the most part. In the coming years, we will see whether the media-consumers will accept this advertising or be opposed to it.
Whether it will truly end up on the same plane as beer or go the way of cigarettes is still to be seen, but it seems to be headed toward the former. For now at least, it’s somewhere in between.
Chris Giblin is a sophomore TV-R major. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.