published in Marketing News, vol. 31 (May 26, 1997): p. 12.

'Ban' on Liquor Ads Not What It Seems
Herbert Jack Rotfeld
Professor of Marketing
Auburn University, Alabama

Trade associations use marketing for their self-regulatory codes since that is the only "power" they really possess. They use marketing to encourage their members cooperation with the code, since the cooperation could help persuade the public that the voluntary code is positive force in the marketplace. They also market an image to the public that the code makes their businesses responsible corporate citizens. And in marketing that image to the public and government, an association often will claim credit for causing desirable business practices, even if such claims are not valid.

The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States code claimed (and is generally given) credit for keeping gin, scotch, vodka and other products off television by their self-imposed ban on such advertising for the past five decades. It is understandable on how they would like to claim credit, but such claims are more image than substance. When Seagrams started a new campaign using television commercials, many business writers called it a "breakdown in self-regulation," not recognizing it as an example of misplaced marketing by the association.

Many things "sound" right and are often repeated as if they are true, but something does not become true simply because it is repeated.

It must first be understood that while industry codes can suggest desired practices, a trade group cannot force any of their members' activities to adhere to the code. A group of competitors that controlled how members could sell products would violate the U.S. anti-trust laws. So, too, with distilled products and television advertising, and the products have been visible in some broadcast realms prior to 1996, just not the places watched by many people.

Actually, the Distilled Spirits Council claims to have kept members' products off U.S. television for 50 years appears almost racist since the products were quite common on Spanish language television up until 1988. If the code kept the products off "mainstream" TV stations and networks, why didn't it do it for the Spanish audiences, too? Since all alcohol advertisers are castigated by charges of targeting minorities with unsafe products, it is doubtful that the association would assert that the past code contained an "exception" for the Spanish language stations. But to credit the code with keeping the products off television as desirable public policy would require an assertion that such an exception existed.

What really kept the distilled products off most of television was that very very few broadcast stations, mostly weak stations in small markets, would accept any such commercials. Companies such as Seagrams were faced with a simple choice: make commercials for those small audiences that might see commercials on those few stations, or design campaigns that depended on print media. Given the potential for strong negative public reactions, coupled with the very limited potential marketing gain, pragmatic business decisions would logically conclude to stick with print.

Prior to 1988, Spanish language stations readily accepted distilled product advertising. So for those audiences, the manufacturers used the broadcast media for their campaigns. The mainstream, English language stations did not, so they depended on print media there.

There have been some other exceptions. Two decades ago, a company sold M*A*S*H Vodka, a joke product based on the popular television program. As consumed by characters Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John and B.J., it came in its own liter bottle and was promoted on those few stations that would accept the commercials. For that special product, television was a necessary advertising tool, regardless of the small audiences.

What changed in 1988 is that the Spanish stations and networks stopped accepting the ads. What changed in 1996 is that some visible major market stations decided to accept Seagrams' commercials. After the Seagrams commercials aired, and realizing that other stations and advertisers might soon follow suit, the Distilled Spirits Council quickly altered the code to say television advertising is acceptable, probably to avoid what could otherwise have become a conflict with its major members.

After so many years of claiming market power, the Distilled Spirits Council spokesman seemed uncomfortable at the press conference explaining the sudden shift in policy. Government leaders, regulators and some public interest groups have proposed possible regulatory actions, placing all alcoholic beverages under scrutiny and even threatening the broadcasters with possible loss of beer and wine advertising. And actual audience reaction has tended toward apathy, indicating that the stations apparently did not err in gauging their audiences' reactions, though the backlash from government has potential for concern.

Available advertising media might force a collection of firms to follow certain practices as they decide how to efficiently reach certain target audiences. And a trade association might adopt those common practices as part of a code, formally endorsing what is already done. Yet such claims can put both the firms and the association in an uncomfortable position as market and media practices change with the times.