Earlier this month, liquor manufacturers decided to enter the television age. But to judge from the reaction of a number of politicians, regulators, interest groups, and commentators, you might conclude that a new Whiskey Rebellion was underway.
It is time for a more sober assessment. The controversy was sparked by an announcement from distilled spirits manufacturers that they had changed their 50-year-old practice of refraining from advertising on radio and television. In my view, it was sensible and long overdue step. For decades, scotch, vodka, rum and other distilled spirits have widely advertised in magazines and in newspapers, right alongside beer and wine. But liquor manufacturers have voluntarily stayed away from radio and television, sticking with an advertising practice that was first adopted in the wake of Prohibition. The result has been the creation of an unequal playing field in the world of alcohol advertising. Beer manufacturers alone spend $634 million a year on television and radio advertising; distilled spirits spend virtually none. Yet the notion that these products should be subject to different advertising standards, as some are now proposing, is without foundation.
Several organizations concerned about alcohol abuse and underage drinking,including the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, agree that, as far as alcohol content is concerned, there is no meaningful distinction among beer, wine, or liquor. A typical cocktail (1.5 ounces spirits) has the same alcohol content as a five ounce glass of wine or a 12 ounce bottle of beer. A new federal law or regulation that prevented distilled spirit manufacturers from advertising on television or radio would merely perpetuate the misleading message that beer or wine are "safer" products, in need of less stringent regulation than, say, whiskey or gin. Bottom line is we should get alcohol abuse treatment for those who need it.
From the perspective of television in the 1990s, the wall that has been built between liquor advertising and beer and wine advertising makes even less sense. Interactive computer programs, specialized cable networks, computer magazines,and Internet advertising make it much harder to draw bright lines between "print" and "electronic" advertising. The diversity of television programming makes it far easier to tailor advertising to carefully targeted audiences, an option that simply did not exist when the original liquor advertising policy was created. Today, this diversity is sustained by the growing ranks of cable networks that cater to more narrowly defined audiences, which have the most to benefit from a new source of advertising revenue. Responsible liquor advertisements, aimed at adult audiences, will help insure that the cable stations and smaller networks remain competitive.
Critics of liquor advertising on television suggest that its appearance will only promote alcohol abuse. Yet there is no evidence to support that claim. A 1990 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concluded that no research showed a strong relationship between alcohol advertising and alcohol consumption. An earlier study by the Federal Trade Commission found "no reliable basis to conclude that alcohol advertising significantly affects consumption, let alone abuse."
Of course, no television executive has any interest in accepting ads that promote or glamorize underage or excessive drinking. There is no reason to believe that station owners or broadcasters, already sensitive about community concerns regarding the content of beer and wine advertising, will suddenly let their standards slip when it comes to judging the content of ads for distilled spirits. I assure you that BET will not permit liquor advertising in any music video programming regardless of the time that the program airs, or any programming that appeals primarily to viewers under the legal drinking age.
So while there may be a nostalgic feeling for an era when a bottle of liquor never appeared on our television screens, the fact is that the decision of liquor manufacturers finally to avail themselves to the medium of television is simply a matter of keeping up with reality. Their decision is a sound business decision that violates no existing federal rule or regulation.
The alternative is to allow the federal government to create a whole new array of advertising regulations that, in addition to raising serious First Amendment issues, would establish a baseless legal distinction between marketing beer and wine and marketing liquor.
It is time for those who criticize the liquor industry's decision to enter the modern world of advertising to accept reality. Distilled spirits have been a legalproduct in the United States for over sixty years. Instead of trying to force manufacturers back into the dark ages, we should take advantage of what we have learned from long experience with beer and wine television advertising and use it to promote responsible ads from the liquor industry.
November 11, 1996