The inside story of how Seagram came to Texas to take on the liquor industry’s TV advertising ban—and uncorked a national controversy.
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FRANK SMITH, JR., the owner of nbc affiliate kris in Corpus Christi, knew he’d be making history of a sort when he helped topple the distilled spirits industry’s 48-year-old self-imposed ban on advertising liquor on network television. It was 9:58 p.m. on June 9, between a basketball game and the ten o’clock news, when his station first aired a commercial for Seagram’s Crown Royal whiskey. The ad featured two vizslas (weimaraner-like dogs) in a solemn graduation ceremony from obedience school. One dog carried a newspaper, while the other, the “valedictorian,” toted a bottle of Crown Royal. “Thank you, Seagram—it’s about time,” Smith proclaimed in a press release, welcoming the $6 billion-a-year Canadian conglomerate to “the finest advertising medium yet devised.”
Produced by Grey Advertising in New York, the ad was hardly the head-turning sensation you might expect for a groundbreaking move to overturn nearly five decades of self-censorship. “My only complaint,” Smith says, “is that it isn’t hard-sell enough.” Yet the national reaction was strong and immediate. On June 13 Massachusetts representative Joseph Kennedy II introduced a bill in Congress making it illegal to advertise liquor on radio and TV. Bill Clinton, in a radio address on June 15, called for liquor companies to “get back to the ban” and “pull the ads.” On June 27 the American Medical Association called the ads “a step backward in efforts to reduce underage and college binge drinking.”
Even more interesting than the response, however, is the story of how and why the ad got on the air. Given the torturous process of corporate decision making on matters of advertising and marketing, you’d think Seagram had done months of focus-group research to find precisely the right state and station to break the ban. But as it happens, serendipity had as much to do with the way things turned out as deliberate planning did. “It’s not as though Seagram was making a big search around the country for a rebel,” says Phil Boeck, the president of Corpus Christi’s Bloch Distributors, who played a central role in placing the ads on KRIS.
Seagram spokesman Bevin Gove acknowledges that the company—like many of its rivals—has long been reconsidering the TV advertising section of the Code of Good Practice, first issued in 1948 by the liquor industry. Liquor sales have been declining in recent years in relation to those of beer and wine; in 1995 sales of liquor as a percentage of alcohol purchased for at-home use fell to 12 percent, down from 25 percent in the early seventies. Because beer and wine are liberally advertised on the airwaves, the liquor industry has been laboring under a competitive disadvantage, says Fred Meister, the president of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. And it hasn’t been helped by the public’s perception that “hard” liquor is more unhealthy and sinful—and more intoxicating—than beer and wine. Seagram, in fact, launched an ad campaign in the mid-eighties emphasizing the “equivalency” issue, stressing the liquor industry’s mantra that “a drink is a drink is a drink.” (It did not violate the ban because it promoted a message, not a product.)
Yet when Seagram officials put the word out this spring that they might be interested in running some TV ads as a test, they did not go looking for a particular outlet. Even though Texas is the top market in the country for Crown Royal, and even though Corpus Christi is the top market for the brand in the state, they ended up at KRIS only because Boeck heard about Seagram’s plans and thought immediately of T. Frank Smith, who had run his own test of the ban in 1986. Driven by a hunch that liquor companies’ fear of disapproval was largely overblown, Smith had enlisted a couple of Corpus Christi liquor stores to run ads on KRIS over a six-week period to test public reaction. “I started running ’em right in the middle of a Baptist convention here in town,” Smith recalls. “I ran ’em all times of the day and night—even on Saturday morning.” Just as he had expected, he boasts, there was minimal public outcry.
And there was not much more of an outcry—locally, at least—this time around. Seventy percent of the viewers polled by KRIS, Smith notes, said they were not opposed to it. The station has received only about thirty phone calls and fewer than seventy letters, some of which were actually in favor of his right to run it. (In response to a petition from a church considering a boycott of his station, Smith—who is seventy and is known around town as an independent thinker—sent back a letter playfully saying he would consider boycotting their church in return.) And representatives of the beer and wine industry in Texas and of Seagram’s competitors in the state have been conspicuously silent. “They’re waiting to see if Seagram gets shot full of arrows,” says one industry observer.
As for the Texas Alcoholic Beverages Commission (TABC), the official response to Seagram’s ad has been practically a yawn of indifference. Despite the byzantine, restrictive laws governing the sale, marketing, and consumption of alcohol in Texas, there are actually no state rules that preclude advertising liquor on television, so long as the ads are not misleading or of the snake-oil variety. “It’s a nonissue for us,” says TABC general counsel Lou Bright. And so far, he says, the agency has not been approached by any individuals or groups proposing a state rule banning TV ads; besides, such a rule might be unconstitutional, considering the recent Supreme Court decision limiting the rights of a state to prohibit the advertising of liquor prices.
Still, there are plenty of teeth left in the state’s liquor laws, and pushing the envelope when it comes to marketing can still bring down the wrath of the TABC. Although liquor companies have sponsored rodeos and concerts around the country, they have to toe the teetotaling line when they come to Texas. This summer, when a New York—based importer of Johnny Walker Black sought to sponsor the finals of a tejano battle of the bands in San Antonio, negotiations with the TABC broke down, and the competition had to be moved at the last minute to New York. “We got kicked out,” said one of the organizers. Among the hang-ups was the nature of the prize, a major-label recording contract. Bright says that liquor companies are allowed to award only “novelty prizes,” such as T-shirts or baseball caps. Furthermore, their product can’t be sold on the premises—even if the premises happens to be, say, a bar.
As for Frank Smith, his own flouting of tradition has been more a matter of principle than profit: He says Seagram’s campaign hasn’t made much money for the station yet. When asked if he considers himself a pioneer, he says, “I don’t wear a coonskin cap, if that’s what you mean. But somebody had to open the door, and that was me.” And he may have opened the door for others as well. According to Seagram, a number of other TV stations from around the country have inquired about running the ads.