Progress? What progress?

Liquor advertising on TV is on the rise in Canada; the distilled spirits industry's ad spend was up 40% for the 12 months ending November 2001 versus the previous year, and 70% of that is going to TV, which is up 112% over 2000.
While a few spots in the burgeoning 'hard alcohol' category break the happy bar/party crowd mold, creativity is not keeping pace with growth.

Liquor advertising on TV is on the rise in Canada; the distilled spirits industry’s ad spend was up 40% for the 12 months ending November 2001 versus the previous year, and 70% of that is going to TV, which is up 112% over 2000.

While a few spots in the burgeoning ‘hard alcohol’ category break the happy bar/party crowd mold, creativity is not keeping pace with growth. The ‘Poker’ spot for Smirnoff and the CC ‘Ouch’ spot thankfully move beyond the babes-in-bar territory, as does the Wiser’s wisdom series, but overall, not very far.

One industry pundit in our Booze Wars feature (see page 10) suggests the reason few spots break new ground in this category is that the return to the airwaves has been so recent that it will take a few years for advertisers to get to the next stage.

Given the sophistication evident in some brands, print and out-of home advertising, such as Absolut’s ongoing campaign, establishing TV creative base camp for the category in ground saturated by beer spots of yore still seems puzzling, even if it’s beer drinkers they’re after. Beer advertising itself has made successful forays beyond buxom babes and marched out of the bars to cover all manner of new scenarios, from ‘Wassup’ to the antics of the Bud Light Institute.

And as advertising has moved on, so have the viewers’ expectations. Consider the U.S. Nextel Communications spot starring Dennis Franz, in which the famously disgruntled actor grumps at his agent (via his Nextel cell phone) over doing a foot product endorsement. Dialogue includes shots at commercials ‘they lie’, and Franz declaring ‘I don’t do commercials’. None of the usual myriad product identifying devices are used, v/o, tags, etc. (although a Nextel ad plays on a TV in the background) so the spot comes off like a cell phone product placement in an anti-advertising short.

This is where the breakthrough bar now rests. True, with any alcohol category there are of course more restrictions to deal with; Franz couldn’t be slugging back vodka while arguing with his agent over doing a cell phone commercial, could he?

The first ‘hard liquor’ advertising hit U.S. network TV last month with a Smirnoff campaign on NBC that broke with a soft ‘don’t drink and drive’ spot. Created for Smirnoff maker Diageo by ITB political strategists at Glover Park Group for the four-month period of ‘socially responsible’ spots required by the network prior to airing upcoming branding spots, the campaign has already been criticized by anti-alcohol groups for not being tough enough on the health risks of drinking – despite the fact that the spots will air after 9 p.m. and on shows where 85% of the audience is over 21.

In the U.S., cable and local station liquor ad activity quadrupled last year. So, given the network breakthrough and growing momentum elsewhere on the dial, the critical spotlight on the category is harsh, which explains the wisdom of a play-it-safe approach.

Yet liquor advertising here isn’t drawing the same degree of scrutiny. Last month, on a local station, I was surprised to even see a liquor spot during a young-kid-skewing family movie. While the wisdom of airing a whiskey spot during a Christmas flick is a different debate, it illustrates less concern over potential backlash here. So, why the unwillingness to draw attention with fresh executions that make the brands stand out? No matter how clever and cute the stereotypical scenario might seem to the advertiser, variants on women ogling men/men ogling women is not furthering brand connection with the bar/party scene over-served audience.

Other ground that is being trod tentatively (perhaps overly so) in Canada, is marketing depicting the gay and lesbian community. While more and more marketers, including P&G, are targetting this consumer segment via niche advertising, most are avoiding any such depictions in their mainstream efforts. According to our cover story, there’s a belief in some formula that decrees being specifically gay/lesbian inclusive in mainstream advertising will turn off more consumers than it will win over, even though studies have shown that groups outside the majority are loyal to brands that depict them in their advertising. Is the mainstream still such a backward bunch that seeing a gay couple in a commercial could hurt a brand?

The successful debut of digital channel PrideVision (in the top 10 a month after launch) attracted two dozen advertisers, but no gay-centric spots at press time.

Given the popularity of shows like Will & Grace, maybe some fast-forwarding is required in this matter in Canada, which is lagging behind even the U.S.

In the meantime, consultant Max Valiquette of Youthography points to sexual ambiguity – having same-sex actors in a spot while leaving the door open as to whether they are a couple or not – as a way for marketers to be consistent in their message to both mainstream and GLBT consumers. The wisdom of this is supported by feedback from one target consumer/media pundit quoted: ‘I’m not going to respond to a buxom woman advertising beer. They could advertise without alienating [and] the community would buy those brands.’

Curiously, the same creatively-lame formulaic advertising leaves many segments of the viewing audience cold just for different reasons.

Retire the formulas.

Cheers,

Mary Maddever,

Strategy Editor