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Vodka, with a Twist

By Gil Sennett · December 20th, 2001 · Ad Nauseam
A simple 30-second spot that aired last week during Saturday Night Live might well have changed advertising forever.

What? You didn't notice?

Coming in pretty far below the public radar, the Smirnoff vodka commercial (pushing the liquor, mind you, not the icy frou-frou drinks you see everywhere) marked the first time ever that an ad for hard liquor has aired on a broadcast network. A small percentage of local stations and cable companies around the country have accepted such advertising in the past, but it was thought by many in the ad world that the leap to national network advertising might never occur.

Certainly, the liquor companies themselves must have thought they'd never have this opportunity either. They have sunk over $6 million into Internet advertising, figuring they could dilute that medium like a weak Seven & Seven.

There are two pretty interesting angles to inspect here: The "rules" NBC will enforce pertaining to the new liquor ads, and the big question of "What Next?"

Here are the guidelines, as we know them:

· Ads may air only between 9-11 p.m., or during "late night."

· 85 percent of the audience of any show on which they are inserted must be 21 years old or older.

· No endorsements by athletes will be permitted.

· Actors appearing in the spots must be at least 30 years old.

· The ad campaign will be accompanied by a safe-drinking series of public service spots.

· NBC also requires advertisers to air social responsibility messages, promoting designated drivers and responsible drinking.

· No ads for beverages where alcohol content exceeds 50 percent.

· No on-camera drinking.

Now I'm no prude. I don't climb aboard my soap box and piss and moan about the need for family-friendly television programming during prime time. But the time slots they've picked to run these once-taboo ads don't make much sense. What teen-ager doesn't stay up past 9 o'clock anymore, watching the tube?

Ah, but the second stipulation solves that problem, right? So long as 85 percent of the show's demo are adults, it's OK. Are we to assume this is NBC's call? If so, using its first placement as an example, how many teens do you think watch Saturday Night Live? According to the rules, 15 percent of its audience or less. That seems fishy to me.

Then there's that arbitrary distinction about who can front the ad campaign. No athletes allowed. But movie stars are OK. Am I missing something? Do we still believe -- after all the Albert Belle and Mike Tyson debates -- that athletes are role models? Or at least more likely to make hard drinking seem hip to a young impressionable audience than Brad Pitt? I just don't get it.

But wait. Only actors over 30 years old can be hired. Who makes this stuff up? Was there a dart toss to determine that age limit? While it's great we won't be seeing James Van Der Beek from Dawson's Creek hocking Stoli, because he's hip with the underagers, that doesn't solve the pesky problem of those actors over 30 who are just as hip to the pee-wee crowd. The aforementioned impressionable audience looks up to and covets the lifestyle of, say, David Boreanaz, star of the teen-friendly Angel, just as much as Dawson. But Boreanaz is over 30, so it's OK.

The second prickly angle to consider in this is where it leads. Lifting the self-imposed ban on hard liquor ads could be the first of more advertising revolutions. We're all expecting the next dropping shoe will be tobacco.

Granted, we'd have to slide down an awfully big slippery slope to get there. Networks voluntarily banned hard liquor ads. There are full-fledged laws regulating cigarette advertising. But what's a silly piece of legislation to a fat-cat tobacco lobbyist? A challenge.

Make no mistake: There is a clear reason why the liquor ban ended when it did. It's all about the Benjamins. You hear for months that the economy is weak, that advertising is drastically down, that networks are flailing. Then, suddenly, a voluntary ban is eased to make way for a multimillion dollar ad deal with Smirnoff.

How good are you at connecting the dots? How much worse need the economy get before other bans are lifted?



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