The full-page ads in the New York Times bear the headline ``It's time America knew the facts about drinking,'' and it is signed by the House of Seagram. Joseph E. Seagram & Sons is one of the nation's largest distributors of distilled liquor and is a major advertiser for its many liquor brands and wine labels. The ad visually tries to equate a foamy beer mug to a wine goblet and a highball glass, using a caption indicating that a can of beer, a glass of wine, and a large shot of hard liquor all contain the same alcohol.
Dubbed the ``equivalency message,'' it's part of an intensive $5 million campaign slated for daily newspapers in 75 United States cities and the major weekly newsmagazines over the next 90 days.
But the true target of these ads is not the reading public. It's the television network brass and the public officials who rule on which advertising messages go on the air -- as the subhead in the ad makes clear: ``It's time ABC, CBS and NBC let the facts be heard.''
In fact, the ad's headline and artwork have been lifted from a 30-second television commercial prepared by Warwick Advertising, a New York agency, for its client Seagram. The spot has been turned down by all three networks.
This campaign represents the latest round in the battle of what constitutes acceptable alcohol advertising and who should decide the answer -- especially in the broadcast media, where the interest of the public is assumed to be paramount.
Traditionally the television networks, their affiliated stations, and the independents have not accepted commercials that advertise hard liquor, but they do accept spots promoting beer and wine, an agreement that added up to $1 billion worth of ads for these products last year. It's a compromise that in the past the liquor industry not only agreed to, but, some say, initially proposed.
Earlier this year, the Senate subcommittee on alcohol and drug abuse, chaired by Sen. Paula Hawkins (R) of Florida, held public hearings on whether advertising for all products containing alcohol should be banned from the airwaves. The subcommittee is expected to issue a report at the end of this month.
On April 17, the Federal Trade Commission, which has responsibility for monitoring the advertising for all products sold across state lines, announced that although it recognized the economic injury and personal tragedy connected with alcohol abuse, it would not recommend a ban on advertising for alcoholic beverages at this time. FTC chairman James C. Miller indicated that he thought some individual alcohol advertising came ``pretty close to the margin,'' and he added, ``We want to put alcohol advertisers on notice that we are looking over their shoulders.''
In taking the offensive with its alcoholic-equivalency campaign, Seagram is reported to be talking to cable networks, independent stations, and television program syndicators. Arthur Sando, vice-president for corporate communications for Turner Broadcasting System in Atlanta (which owns superstation WTBS and Cable News Network), says that ``if we're approached by Seagram we would certainly run the disputed commercial.''
The copy in the print ad includes the names of several prestigious organizations such as the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the American Automobile Association, and the National Football League as favoring the publicizing of facts as Seagram presents them.
An NFL spokesman expressed surprise that the league had been listed in the ad and indicated the NFL name was included without permission.
For its part, Seagram is planning to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, formally accusing ABC, CBS, and NBC of violating the ``fairness doctrine,'' which requires the networks to provide time for opposing views on controversial issues.
At a recent press conference, Edgar Bronfman Jr., president of the House of Seagram, contended that the networks air public-service announcements in which they warn the public of the potential dangers of alcohol abuse. But, he added, ``At the same time, they [the networks] are airing hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of commercials encouraging the consumption of beer and wine.''
All three networks promptly issued statements denying that their stand against running the Seagram spot was in violation of the ``fairness doctrine.'' Some advertising experts admire the way Seagram has turned the network's arguments back on them to get the company name on the air. Others, however, accuse the company of simply using a cunning method to advertise on television -- or, failing in this objective, taking the side of those who would ban all alcohol advertising on television -- including beer and wine. Seagram stoutly denies this. Many of its wine labels are advertised on television.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based public-interest advocate, has taken a firm stand on the issue of alcoholic beverage advertising, especially on television. This group is spearheading a counterattack against Seagram.
George Hacker, the group's director for alcohol policies, says, ``If their ads are run on cable, the networks, or local stations, we will go to the FCC.'' He went on to say that his group would counter the Seagram print campaign by whatever means open to it.