American broadcast TV is strange. Just as taboos against provocative language and frank sexual imagery are fading on the content side of the business, the advertising side remains required to follow strict rules promulgated when Ricky still loved Lucy. No commercials for condoms, despite tens of thousands of Aids deaths. No issue advertising, no matter how valuable such debate may be. And certainly no ads for hard liquor, despite more than a half-century's worth of spots for beer, wine and now even the new "malternatives
or alcopops that are brewed like beer and sold under liquor brand names such as Bacardi.
The distilled spirits industry followed a voluntary code to stay off US radio and TV from the 30s until 1997, when liquor marketers decided they could no longer deprive themselves of the benefits those powerful media could deliver. Since then, hard liquor spots have appeared on many national cable TV networks; local cable systems serving more than three quarters of all subscribers; and more than 2,400 local TV and radio stations.
But the four major broadcast networks - ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC - continued to refuse all distilled spirits advertising, fearful that interest groups would accuse them of encouraging underage drinking or that those complaints would jeopardise the $850 million worth of beer and wine ads they sell each year.
So Madison Avenue was startled when just before Christmas, NBC broke ranks with its brethren and declared it would peddle distilled spirits, albeit under a 19-point set of guidelines that made the Ten Commandments look wimpy.
There were restrictions on the content of ads, when they would appear and a requirement for four months of spots carrying so-called social responsibility messages before any ads could appear for a specific hard liquor brand.
The North American division of Diageo, which worked with NBC to develop the guidelines, agreed to follow them. A spot began on 15 December talking about designating a driver before drinking, which ended with a glimpse of a Smirnoff vodka logo. The ads continued to appear - never before 11.30pm - with a goal of showing the first actual Smirnoff spot, to be created by J. Walter Thompson, in mid-April.
Agencies predicted that liquor ads on the big broadcast networks could turn into a $300 million category. But complaints began pouring in, particularly from influential Congressional leaders whose support NBC needs on other important issues. The idea that Congress was asking NBC to reassess the policy change was enough for the network to spring the surprising news on 20 March that its experiment was over. But for how long? There's a clue in the Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer song from the Blake Edwards film about alcoholism, Days of Wine and Roses: "Through the meadowland toward a closing door, a door marked 'never more' that wasn't there before."