The cork comes out

After a 40-year gentlemen's agreement banning spirits advertising on television, reports Meg Carter, the floodgates are about to open
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The Independent Online
Spirits advertisers have plans for a very merry Christmas. For the first time in 40 years, they will stage a major TV onslaught, with Southern Comfort, Glenfiddich and Smirnoff Red among those making their televisual debut. How things change - just a year ago, rivals slammed United Distillers (UD) for breaking a gentleman's agreement not to run ads on TV. Then came the uproar concerning "alcopops". Small wonder if distillers, although thirsty, are now adopting a softly, softly approach.

Nobody can quite remember the reasons for the voluntary TV ban on spirits. Some insist that distillers were acting in the best interests of the public, others that the ban had more to do with fear of competition. Either way, rivals agreed to keep spirits off TV and promote liqueurs, such as Cointreau and Drambuie, only as an after-dinner drink. Whisky, vodka and gin were banished to the cinema accompanying 18-certificate films, leaving the field open to beer brands, which have proved heavy TV users since.

Fast forward to 1995, and declining spirits sales (and a clientele which, in the case of whisky, was quite literally dying on its feet) persuaded many to think again. At first, most adopted a wait-and-see approach. "We're concerned that UD should decide on unilateral independence on this issue," said a spokesman for rival company Allied Domecq, whose brands include Teacher's and Beefeater. "The fact that one brand has been pushing may be indicative that it hasn't been enjoying the success it could have. We are in no rush to use TV."

But 12 months is a short time in advertising. So far in 1996 - the first calendar year following the breaking of the ban - spirits advertisers have spent pounds 6m on TV airtime, compared with nothing in 1994, according to figures compiled by AC Nielsen Register-Meal. Given that about half of spirits brands' annual media expenditure occurs in the final quarter, sources predict the final 1996 total could approach pounds 15m. IDV alone, whose brands include Smirnoff and Southern Comfort, confirms it has increased its pre-Christmas spend by 30 per cent year on year.

Meanwhile, UD is reportedly set to treble its advertising budget to pounds 9m this year, with pounds 3.6m earmarked for a pre-Christmas drive. Bacardi is understood to have switched nearly pounds 4m from posters to TV in the final quarter of 1996. Highland and Distillers is considering using TV for the first time to promote Famous Grouse.

"We're fully committed to TV," says IDV marketing controller Tim O'Donnell. "We're the only wines and spirits group in the top six whose volume sales are actually growing." Why? "Because we spend more per case on advertising than our competitors." IDV will shortly move Southern Comfort and Smirnoff Red on to TV.

"It's not a question of using TV to target younger consumers, but to more efficiently communicate with larger numbers," he quickly explains. "TV means we can make a greater impact."

This, however, can prove quite a tall order, because spirits, like any alcohol, must follow a number of guidelines laid down by the ITC. Notably, they must not appear to be directed or designed to appeal to under-18s, so they can't be aired when children might be watching. Nor can they feature minors or imply that drinking results in social - or sexual - success. They cannot suggest that alcohol has therapeutic qualities, and they must not claim that higher alcohol content is better than low.

This poses a bit of a problem, one senior advertising executive concedes. "These advertisers are eager to re-position themselves as more attractive to younger drinkers in their late teens and early twenties," they said. "But their hands are tied. They want to make ads with youthful appeal, but mustn't be seen to be doing so. All this can make the option of using TV seem pretty pointless."

This very concern has prompted one agency's creative head to demand a relaxation of the advertising rules. Summerfield Wilmot-Keene, creative director Paul Wilmot, recently had two ads for DNA, a wine-based spring water, banned by the Broadcast Advertising Copy Clearance Centre (BACC) - the body which previews all commercials to ensure they meet ITC guidelines - for being too sexy. He says that new rules are long overdue to keep up with the fast-changing youth market, pointing to the increasingly raunchy youth programmes around which such ads appear.

"Present guidelines are clear, and I agree with them - to a point," he explains. "Where it gets tricky is the subjective judgements made when public and political opinion shifts." Recent packaging and promotion of alcopops caused a public outcry for appealing to under-age drinkers. The drinks industry has since introduced tighter controls but as a result the climate has become more cautious. Wilmot says: "This is becoming a problem for all alcohol advertising - and it's not unlike the situation with cigarettes."

BACC sources, however, insist that there are currently no grounds for any review of the advertising code, which is good news to agencies and broadcasters eager to hold on to what they've got. Industry estimates suggest alcohol advertising is worth about pounds 200 million a year to commercial broadcasters.

It is, however, a precarious business, according to Gary Knight, executive sales director of Laser, ITV's sales house. "We want to see alcohol advertising continue on TV, but there are eggshells everywhere."

The situation is exacerbated by growing concern in Mediterranean countries and at the EU over the dangers of advertising alcohol on TV. There are similar concerns in the US, where the drinks giant Seagram broke that spirits industry's 48-year-old voluntary TV black-out last June. President Clinton voiced his disappointment, urging liquor companies to "go back to the ban" to protect the nation's children. The Federal Communications Commission subsequently urged a group of paediatricians to fight to keep further spirits ads off TV; that same body is also considering pressing for a total ban.

Back in the UK, all are quick to point out that in the past year, no TV ad for spirits has had any complaint upheld against it by the ITC. Nick Mustoe, chief executive of Mustoe Merriman Herring Levy, the agency which produced the TV campaign for Bacardi Spice, insists that improved research enables better targeting of ads around specific programmes "chosen for their exact audience profile".

"At the end of the day," he says, "you'll always find that someone who shouldn't be watching ends up consuming the message. However, that is the same in any cinema audience watching an 18-certificate film."

Even so, health bodies and support groups are monitoring the situation carefully. "We're concerned about all alcohol advertising," says Mike Bennett of Alcohol Concern. "Any attempt to sell alcohol to younger consumers risks spilling over and appealing to those who are under age." He believes that existing TV guidelines have worked well, so far, although he points to the marketing frenzy surrounding alcopops as proof of the need for constant vigilance.

Advertisers, their agencies and the TV companies who take their pound just can't afford to put a step wrong, Bennett adds. Otherwise, they'll find themselves drinking in the last-chance saloon