Liquor ads pervasive, study says


NEW YORK -- As the spirits giants continue to pour more ad dollars into cable and spot TV, underage viewers' exposure to alcohol advertising has exploded, per a new study conducted by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown University.

Between 2001 and 2005, 1.4 million alcohol ads ran on TV at a cost of $4.7 billion, per CAMY. The number of ads spiked 34% during that five-year span, thanks largely to the fact that distilled spirits companies broke a 48-year-old self-imposed ban on TV advertising.

Here's a short history: In 1996, Seagram was the first spirits company to ignore the voluntary ban on TV advertising. Its Crown Royal and Lime Twisted Gin ads infuriated groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Center for Science in the Public Interest and members of Congress.

The debate raged, but slowly more liquor brands began to buy cable and spot TV advertising. By the turn of the millennium, more brands began testing TV buys (as well as public sentiment). The "Should spirits be allowed to advertise on TV?" debate hit a fever pitch in December 2001 when Diageo ran an ad for Smirnoff on NBC's Saturday Night Live.

The No. 1 liquor company eventually succumbed to public pressure and scrapped the network buy. No spirits ads have run on network since, but cable and spot buys have continued to be accepted. Once it was clear there would be no public backlash, most of the major brands jumped in.

The end result: By 2005, there were 23 times more TV ads for booze than in 2001. Indeed, former spirits giant Seagram has since disappeared, but its legacy continues.

Industry groups adopted a rule in 2003 that said a maximum 30% of the ad placements that reach underage consumers should be for alcohol. This measuring stick overexposed kids to alcohol ads by a count of 93% on cable TV in 2005.

BET, Comedy Central and VH1 air the most liquor ads, per CAMY, which noted more underage drinkers saw these ads than the spirits brands target group of adults ages 21-34.

Since 2001, alcohol ads have appeared every year on 13 or more of the top-15 programs most popular with kids 12-17.

"Youth exposure to alcohol is moving in the wrong direction," said CAMY executive director David Jernigan. "Twenty state attorneys general and the Institute of Medicine have said the alcohol industry needs to do a better job of shielding our kids from its advertising."