NBC Bows to Tsunami of Criticism, Pulls Liquor Ads

21 March 2002

US national TV network NBC has dropped its plan to air hard liquor commercials – a decision impelled by a tidal wave of protest from political, medical and consumer sources.

Of the big four national networks, NBC was isolated in its decision to run alcohol ads, the remaining trio keeping their heads well below the parapet until they could gauge which way the wind was blowing.

In December, NBC made its first tentative move toward running hard liquor commercials, publishing a set of guidelines that required advertisers to air so-called social responsibility ads for four months prior to any brand promotion.

UK-headquartered booze behemoth Diageo was the first to raise the TV bottle on December 15 with a discreetly sponsored admonition from its Smirnoff brand that groups of drinkers out celebrating should designate a non-drinking driver. Such public-spirited exhortations continued into 2002 and were due to be superseded in April with a series of overt Smirnoff commercials.

Said a sadder-but-wiser Alan Wurtzel, president for research at NBC: “We went into this knowing we'd be plowing new ground and it would not come without controversy. We said we would do it as responsibly as we could; and after listening to the House and Senate, to the interest groups, we felt it was not appropriate to go to the next step at this point.”

NBC’s legion of critics feared that its decision to run spirits commercials would encourage children and teenagers to drink. Most expressed satisfaction at the network's decision to change its mind.

“Alcohol is the number one drug of abuse by far for America’s children and keeping hard-liquor ads off broadcast television will help in the effort to curb underage drinking by removing the temptation and glamour,” said Joseph A Califano Jr, chairman and president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. “I'd like to credit NBC with listening to reason,” he added. “I'm sure they're also listening to Congress.”

Biting the bullet, a Diageo spokesperson said Wednesday: “We are very proud of our advertising and the support it has received. We will continue our discussions with NBC and other networks as we remain focused on attaining equal access to the airwaves.”

Data sourced from: New York Times; additional content by WARC staff