Lifting their weary spirits at home

At last, whisky and gin can be advertised on TV. But is this the way to win back a lost generation of drinkers? Rhys Williams reports
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The Independent Online
A 40-year "ban" on spirits advertising on television was lifted on Thursday, a move that must come as a bit of a shock to the millions who did not realise that such a ban - only ever voluntary - existed in the first place.

After all, the spirits industry spent pounds 39.3m last year plastering poster sites, colour supplements and cinema screens with its seductive messages, leaving consumers with the wholly justified impression that a plug for Bacardi or Gordon's Gin was never far from intruding on the national psyche. The regular appearance in TV ads of equally potent liqueurs can only have added to the confusion.

Precisely why the ban was instituted in the first place isfrankly a bit of a mystery. Some in the drinks industry say that distillers shied away from television until their brewing counterparts had proved that alcohol advertising on the box could be handled responsibly.

Cynics doubt that such a high degree of altruism was involved. The true cause of distillers' reluctance to tangle with commercial television, they argue, was rooted in the fear of the potentially crippling costs of advertising. Thus, the big players came to a gentleman's agreement in the mid-Fifties to steer clear of the medium, to avoid expensive competition.

Either way, by the early Sixties the voluntary ban was consolidated into the ITV Association's guidelines to its member companies. Regional broadcasters could show no spirits ads, although curiously liqueurs and other after- dinner drinks were permitted. The apparent anomaly seems to be based on a quaint notion of the way that products such as Tia Maria, Drambuie and Cointreau were consumed: as "after-dinner" drinks they were supposedly sipped with restraint, not poured down the neck with intoxicated abandon.

Just as commercial self-interest played a part in instituting the ban, it has driven the campaign for reform 40 years later. The main agent of change has been United Distillers, the spirits division of Guinness, responsible for Bell's whisky, Gordon's Gin, Johnnie Walker and Pimms. The company has argued vigorously that all types of alcohol should be treated the same, both in terms of duty and the way in which they can be marketed.

Support for United's stance appears to come from the Independent Television Commission's code on advertising, which makes no distinction between alcohol type, and a European Union directive on broadcasting which states that treatment of alcohol advertising should be even-handed.

However, there is also a vital strategic imperative driving the ending of the advertising ban:the quest to win back a "lost generation" of spirits drinkers.

When the ban was agreed in 1955, a somewhat complacent assumption reigned supreme among distillers, that as drinkers grew older they moved from beer into whisky. Over the years the whisky producers havebecome increasingly alarmed at the long-term decline in British whisky consumption, particularly among younger customers.

A demographic drop in the number of young people, coupled with changing tastes, has seen wine sales drop by 14 per cent, beers fall by 16 per cent and spirits drop by 23 per cent during the past five years. A report by the market research company Mintel found that during the past decade, whisky consumption fell by 13 per cent among the 25 to 34 age group, 12 per cent among 35 to 44-year-olds, while there will be 20 per cent fewer whisky drinkers aged under 25 by 1998. In short, United Distillers could be witnessing the slow death of famous and key brands such as Bell's.

For most of this, distillers can blame the Becks, Rolling Rocks and Michelobs of this world, the premium bottled lagers which, along with New World wines such as Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon and Australian Shiraz, have provided discerning twenty and thirtysomethings with a cosmopolitan, cool, chic alternative to the old British standards of whisky and gin. The creative challenge is how to reinvigorate these weary spirits, a task for which the distillers' well-remunerated advertising agencies will earn every last penny. Several scripts have already been submitted to the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre, which must approve all TV and radio commercials.

The Independent Television Commission's advertising code governing alcohol will tightly control what can appear on screen. Commercials cannot be directed at children under 18, nor use treatments likely to be of particular appeal to them. They cannot imply that alcohol breeds social or sexual success, or that refusal to drink is a sign of weakness, and so on.

What worries the likes of Eric Appleby, director of Alcohol Concern, is how skilled the advertising industry is at pushing rules to their limit. His fears - that opening up television advertising to spirits companies will immediately lead to a recruitment drive among drinkers in their late teens and early twenties - appear to have some foundation.

This week's Marketing Week asked three agencies to produce ads for a fictional bourbon whisky called Mustang. One shows tramps and assorted down-and-outs, intercut with a bottle of Mustang and overlaid with an Eddie Harris blues track. "Mustang Bourbon," says the voiceover. "Don't get to like it too much." The agency responsible trumpets: "Not only have we deftly avoided the clutches of the BACC, we have also produced a no- bullshit, matter-of-fact approach for an 18- to 30-year-old audience bored rigid with irrelevant, glossy brand values."

Appleby's fear is mirrored by concern in parts of the industry that it is leaving itself exposed to the risk of a total ban on alcohol advertising. The advertising industry is going through one of its morally neurotic phases, agonising over its role as mirror of the nation's standards of behaviour. Can a business racked with doubt as to whether its work is promoting a climate of "new yobbishness" (as one leading agency chairman claims it is) be trusted with a bottle of gin?

"Until we try, we won't know," says Winston Fletcher, chairman of the agency DFSD Bozell and long-time industry sage. Apart from believing that spirits will contribute little more than pounds 10m a year in additional revenue, Fletcher expects companies to play safe strategically, concentrating on persuading existing spirits drinkers to switch brands, rather than attracting new recruits.

Significantly younger drinkers, he says, will not enter the frame, if only because it will lead to accusations of irresponsibility. "That is in nobody's interest, either ethically or commercially. What you're not going to see is a whisky equivalent of the Tango campaign."

So although you may have not noticed before this week that the spirits ads were not actually on the box, now that they are, you will probably wonder what has changed.