Young drinkers targeted in drop of the hard sell

Whisky campaign: Ground-breaking TV adverts designed to appeal to a `lost generation'

A few million television viewers last night witnessed an historic event, probably without realising it. It lasted a minute, was seen in Scotland, Ulster and the Border and Granada TV regions, and will be repeated every week until Christmas.

The viewers might have thought they were watching an advertisement for the Scottish Tourist Board until the final few seconds, when words appeared proclaiming: "Bell's 8-year-old Scotch whisky - who said it was a quiet drink?" No picture of the bottle or of the Bell's label appears in the advertisement, which features general shots of Scotland's countryside, parts of the distilling process and of young men drinking in a bar.

After 40 years in the television advertising wilderness, United Distillers has become the first whisky producer to use the most powerful medium. Its target is the "lost generation" of young drinkers who have turned to vodka and white rum.

United Distillers, owned by Guinness and the largest spirits producer in the world, spent the best part of two years lobbying to lift the ban imposed by television companies on advertising spirits. Clearance to advertise was gained in June and was immediately celebrated by Richard Branson with commercials for Virgin Vodka.

With a touch of irony, it was the Scotch whisky industry itself that brought about the ban. In 1955, when commercial television was launched in the UK, the whisky producers struck a gentlemen's agreement not to advertise on television.

The reason was never explained but television companies eventually incorporated the agreement into the industry's code and practice.

Consumption of Scotch in the UK today is considerably less than it was in 1955. While the ban on television advertising has contributed to the decline, the industry's two biggest problems are changing fashions among younger drinkers and Budget tax rises.

Just over pounds 7 of the price of a bottle of Scotch that sells for pounds 11 is pocketed by the Treasury in excise duty and VAT. The high price of Scotch has undoubtedly been the drink's biggest enemy, evidenced by the growth in sales of cheaper supermarket own-label brands.

Whisky sales as a percentage of all the spirits sold in the UK declined from 51 per cent in 1978 to 42 per cent last year. The typical whisky drinker is male and over 60, and drinkers between 25 and 34 only consume 10 per cent of all the Scotch consumed in the UK.

About 85 per cent of the spirit is exported but the UK market remains an important one for producers. A Guinness spokesman said of the pounds 2m campaign: "We are trying to get back the lost generation of 25- to 35- year-olds. If this advertising works then we will consider a national campaign for 1996."