Commentary

NBC’s Liquor Ad Sellout

By Adam D. Thierer
March 23, 2002

When NBC announced this week that they were capitulating to political pressure to pull liquor ads off their airwaves, we were reminded once again why the last group on Earth you can trust to defend capitalist freedoms is the capitalists themselves.

NBC officials have been under intense and incessant fire from Congress and the so-called “public health” crowd since they announced late last year that they would start airing liquor commercials during late-evening programming, something that has been prohibited under a voluntary 50-year industry ban on spirits advertising over the airwaves. Although the first liquor spots merely stressed responsible drinking, not the actual product itself, and were only shown during late-night programming, the response from policy makers and the public health crowd was overwhelmingly negative.

How dare NBC air liquor ads on TV? the critics cried. Some of their arguments: “They have betrayed the public trust” (whatever that is); “they are placing our kids at risk” (guess parents aren’t responsible for their kids anymore); “they are putting more drunk drivers on the roads” (no, drunk drivers are putting themselves behind the wheel, not anyone else). Their simpleton logic can essentially be boiled down to, “Liquor can hurt people - especially kids - so it shouldn’t be advertised on television.”

But the idea that a product should be banned from television just because it could be used inappropriately just doesn’t make sense. Last time I checked people were still dying in auto and motorcycle accidents but we haven’t banned car or motorbike ads yet. Speaking from experience, I know that kids can do some pretty crazy things while operating cars and motorcycles.

Maybe if Congress just banned car and motorcycle ads everything would get better. And why is it fine for beer and wine to be advertised on television but not spirits? Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’re whole life you’ve had to notice that you can’t turn on your television set without being inundated with beer commercials. In fact, some of the most famous ads in the history of the medium have been produced by beer giants such as Budweiser (the Clydesdales and the frogs) and Miller Lite (“Less Filling, Tastes Great”), among many others. Meanwhile, over in the print world, the spirits industry has enjoyed greater success given its compete freedom to advertise their product in magazines and newspapers. (Consider the famous Absolut vodka ads).

So somehow we’re stuck with a policy that says that beer and wine makers have the freedom to advertise wherever they want, whenever they want, but liquor companies can only communicate with customers through newspapers and magazines. But at least this has been a voluntary policy in the past. The threat today is that the feds will get involved and impose national standards on liquor advertising. Bombastic congressmen had already threatened hearings and even potential legislation if NBC didn’t cave. So, not surprisingly, that’s exactly what the network did.

This is a real shame because NBC could have won this fight. Congress and the public health crowd are willing to demagogue a lot on this front, but they are smart enough to know that legislation or regulation would likely face an uphill court challenge given some other recent decisions regarding commercial speech and advertising. Recent court cases have leaned in favor of greater commercial speech freedom. Federal legislative or regulatory efforts would have likely been struck down as unconstitutional violations of the First Amendment.

And that’s the way it should be. There is absolutely no justification for placing restrictions on companies that wish to advertise lawful products on television. Nor is there any excuse for this continuing artificial regulatory distinction between print and electronic media in terms of speech protections.

But all this probably doesn’t make a difference now that NBC has decided to give in to puritanical members of Congress and the regulation-obsessed public health community. (God forbid we actually let people decide what to see, eat, and drink on their own.) Once again, cowardly capitalists have refused to stand up for their own commercial free speech rights and political pressure has trumped the First Amendment.

Adam Thierer is the director of telecommunications studies at the Cato Institute.