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NBC Hits The Bottle

NBC is breaking a longtime television taboo by becoming the first broadcast network to run hard liquor commercials.

The first hint of the policy change will come this weekend, when a public service message promoting designated driving sponsored by Smirnoff's vodka brand will appear during "Saturday Night Live"

Although beer and wine are advertised frequently on television, broadcasters have refused to hawk hard liquor for fear that they'll be seen as socially irresponsible.

The distilled spirits trade group didn't even bother making TV spots until 1996, when they began buying time on cable systems and at some local broadcast affiliates. The companies began trying this year to more aggressively seek TV time.

NBC agreed on a multimillion-dollar contract with Guinness UDV, maker of such brands as Baileys Irish Cream, Smirnoff's vodka, Johnny Walker scotch, Jose Cuervo tequila and Tanqueray gin. Guinness UDV is the U.S. subsidiary of the London-based Diageo, the world's largest liquor distributor.

NBC's decision to run liquor commercials comes in the midst of an economic downturn that has depressed the television advertising market.

"We feel like we've developed guidelines that work for us, work for the industry and work for the public," said Kassie Canter, NBC spokeswoman.

The decision is expected to anger people concerned about alcohol abuse, possibly some politicians and beer makers, who have so far been able to advertise extensively without worrying about competition from hard liquor.

Representatives from ABC, CBS and Fox said they had no plans to change their liquor advertising policies "at this time."

Gary Galanis, a spokesman for Guinness UDV, said the company approached NBC several months ago. NBC's standards department issued a 19-point policy outlining its conditions for accepting the liquor ads.

"We are the company with the strictest advertising codes in the industry," Galanis said. "Our television advertising will reflect this commitment."

NBC is requiring any hard liquor advertiser to run four months of public service messages about drinking before any product-plugging gets on the air. After that, NBC said that for every four commercials it runs, a company must air one public service message.

The hard liquor spots are designed for programs that air after 9 p.m., but NBC said it will consider the commercials for other shows that have an audience demographic of 85 percent aged 21 and older.

No active professional athletes may be used in the ads, nor any entertainment figure who appeals primarily to under-age fans, NBC said.

NBC also said that "products shall not be promoted for the intoxicating effect that may be achieved by their alcohol content."

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