June 20th, 2007

Jack Daniels Invites a Backlash as it Embeds Its Brand in Mad Men

By Russell Mokhiber
Corporate Crime Reporter

Federal law says that tobacco cannot be advertised on television.

How did that happen?

The tobacco industry pushed for it.

Why?

Well, back in the 1960s, federal law said that if a television station ran a tobacco ad, it then had to run an anti-tobacco ad.

And the anti-tobacco ads were so powerful, that people actually began to quit.

So, the tobacco companies said – the hell with this.

Let’s get Congress to ban tobacco ads.

That way, we’ll get rid of anti-tobacco ads.

That’s the tobacco ad story in a nutshell.

What about liquor?

Up until 1996, liquor industry said – we won’t allow hard liquor ads on television.

Why not?

George Hacker of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says it grew out of prohibition.

The industry was associated with gansters – the criminal element.

So, to avoid another backlash, the industry had to lay low.

The industry was advised to keep its ads off the radio – and then television.

But by 1996, the stigma had begun to wear off.

The industry saw that beer was being promoted heavily over the airwaves.

And liquor said – me too.

And then the floodgates opened.

Liquor television advertisement on television went from zero dollars in 1996 to $118 million in 2006.

And the industry is pushing to be everywhere.

The networks still don’t allow liquor advertisements.

But liquor advertisements are all over cable.

And now, the industry wants to go beyond 30-second commercials.

They want the characters to drink their brand name liquor during the show.

The 13-episode show Mad Men, scheduled to run this year on the AMC cable network, is about the heavy drinking, heavy smoking men of the advertising industry circa 1960.

The show is sponsored by Brown-Forman’s Jack Daniels Tennessee whiskey.

But not just through regular 30-second advertisements.

In three of the 13 episodes, Jack Daniels the product will be featured in the show.

People drinking Jack Daniels whiskey, or asking for it by name.

And Jack Daniels will be advertising the show heavily on AMC and at AMC promotional events.

This is called branded entertainment.

One problem: the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States has a code of conduct.

And now comes the public interest group Commercial Alert.

They have complained to the Council that in fact the branded entertainment that is Mad Men in fact violates that code.

“Based on the material on AMC’s web site, it appears that the sponsorship arrangement will violate numerous provisions of the industry’s self-regulatory marketing code,” wrote Robert Weissman, managing director of Commercial Alert. “Among these provisions are prohibitions on alcohol marketing in association with depictions of irresponsible drinking and intoxication, and overt sexual activity or sexually lewd images or language.”

Council spokesperson Lisa Hawkins said that the group’s Code Review Board has received the complaint and has it under review.

Brown-Forman spokesman Phil Lynch says the advertising on the program does not violate the code.

Lynch said that three episodes of Mad Men will feature Jack Daniels.

And the company will have veto power over those scenes.

So, if for example, if the producers of the show propose a scene where a male character is shown taking a shot of Jack Daniels, and then making out with a half naked female character, the company will not allow Jack Daniels to be mentioned or shown in that segment.

“We have the right to approve or reject the scenes where Jack Daniels whiskey is involved,” Lynch told Corporate Crime Reporter. “We will make sure the use of the imagery is consistent with our own code and the industry code.”

But on the AMC web site is a scene where one of the leading men is drinking a glass of whiskey. He then walks over to make out with a half naked woman.

Would the company reject that scene?

No, says Lynch, because the whiskey is not identified as being Jack Daniels whiskey.

Well, let’s say that the leading man drinks whiskey clearly identified as Jack Daniels whiskey.

And then there is a break for a 30-second commercial.

And then in the very next scene, after the commercial, the guy is shown making out with a half naked woman.

Would the company reject that scene?

No, Lynch says.

They will only reject inappropriate scenes where the Jack Daniels brand is directly involved – in that scene.

Commercial Alert’s Weissman see’s it differently.

“Jack Daniels is a sponsor of the entire series, and the entire series is, as the New York Times describes, ‘branded entertainment,’” Weissman wrote. “In that context, this scene violates Discus Code 25, which states that “advertising and marketing materials should not contain or depict … overt sexual activity” (or graphic or gratuitous nudity; promiscuity; or sexually lewd or indecent images or language).”

Lynch says that’s a ridiculous argument.

“So Commercial Alert believes consumers associate soaps, deodorants, erectile dysfunction drugs that advertise on CSI and Law and Order with the murder and mayhem on those shows?” Lynch asked. “We trust that consumers know the difference between a product advertised in the show and the murder and mayhem in the show.”

One difference here, Mr. Lynch.

If Jack Daniels is in the show, the show becomes the ad.

And your own code of conduct says advertisements should not contain graphic or gratuitous nudity, overt sexual activity, promiscuity, or sexually lewd or indecent images or language.

A recent report from the Georgetown University’s Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth found that in the wake of an historic increase in distilled spirits advertising on television since 2001, underage youth exposure to alcohol advertising on television has grown substantially over the past five years.

So, despite everything you say, Mr. Lynch, about targeting your ads to adult television, the message is getting out to young children.

Beware the backlash.

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