Rolling With The Times
“standfirst”>Jim Beam has taken its first steps into cable television advertising in the US. How long will the national networks resist the lure of spirits brands, asks Jon Rees
It’s always been an oddity that spirits advertising is taboo on the major US television networks, but some of the most venerable brands are edging closer and closer to them all the time.
The ban on spirits advertising is voluntary and goes right back to when the radio and television networks were formed, which was not too long after Prohibition was finally lifted and the ethos of apparent restraint seemed a good thing for a newly emerging media network to grasp.
Up until 1996 it was a total ban, but then, in the face of a downturn in the spirits market, Seagram decided it was time for a change and the bans were gradually lifted. So now ads for hard liquor appear on US cable television networks across the nation.
They do not, however, appear on the main, national television networks, such as ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN and WB, all of which still refuse to run them. Beer commercials have always been allowed and it is the success of those advertising campaigns which spirits producers have blamed for their loss of market share, in particular in the highspending 16 to 34 year-old sector.
Brewers, of course, see it slightly differently, noting that the lack of access to a national advertising medium has been one of the factors which have pushed the spirits suppliers into being rather more inventive than they perhaps would have been otherwise. The success of cocktails, mixers, etc in recent years has made the brewers worry that beer is no longer an American staple in the way it used to be a couple of decades ago. Nevertheless, one of the oldest US liquors, Jim Beam, has decided it had better join the fray and is running a television advertising campaign for the first time.
The move is a considerable departure for the brand since, previously, the nearest Jim Beam had got to television advertising was its sponsorship of public service broadcasts on the dangers of drinking too much, under the slogan “Drink smart”.
In a considerable contrast to this, the new television campaign, which will cost between $8 million and $12 million, has been developed out of the brand’s print campaign and carries the slogan The stuff inside matters most.
Look and learn
This is no one-off event, either. Instead, television will be the main advertising medium for the brand by next year. Of course, Jim Beam will not be appearing on the main national television networks, but since the ban on spirits advertising was lifted an informal coalition of cable television companies has sprung up along with local broadcast television companies which means spirits advertising can easily reach the major cities. Among the cable networks which will be carrying the advertising are CNN, Bravo, the Golf Channel and the Sci-Fi Channel.
Jim Beam will be joining an everwidening club of liquor brands which advertise on television including Absolut vodka, Captain Morgan rum, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whisky and Southern Comfort. The power of television to bring a brand’s advertising alive is undeniable. When the Jim Beam commercial was tested on an audience, over two-thirds of the people who saw it said they “had learned something new about the brand”.
What exactly that was, it should be noted, is a matter of some conjecture, especially when one considers that Jim Beam is over 200 years old and has been advertised, regularly, for decades. However, perhaps the very fact that consumers felt they had learned something new about the brand is impressive evidence that television reaches the parts that other advertising media do not reach.
As more and more cable networks and local broadcasters are prepared to take spirits advertising in the US, placing advertising in the right broadcasting environment becomes easier. This means, in part, that the programmes are not the sort to appeal to under-21s, while they are still the kind which get significant numbers of premium viewers. Indeed, the aim is to have at least 70% of viewers who are over 21 years of age. The commercials will run, therefore, between shows like plastic surgery drama Nip/Tuck, sports shows like the wonderfully-named The Best Damn Sports Show Period and war dramas like Over There. They will not run before 9pm.
What does the television commercial look like? Well, it sets out to demonstrate the authenticity of the brand in a world of change, just as one would expect from a product which makes a virtue of its age. It is set inside a rack house (where Jim Beam is stored) as the barrels are being rolled out. Since this is the advertising industry, naturally, the rack house is not the genuine article. That would be a touch too authentic. No, the rack house was recreated on a Los Angeles sound stage for the filming.
As the barrels roll, so the years roll by, too, as shown by the gradual transition from black and white to colour and the change in the workmen’s clothes and tools. Then, a gravely-voiced singer called Dave Alvin supplies the voiceover: “Whoever said change is good knows squat about bourbon. For 210 years and seven generations we’ve stayed true to the original Beam family recipe. Here’s to stubbornness.”
The commercial ends with workers from the distillery looking through bottles of bourbon without labels.
Resistance is futile
So, Jim Beam’s new venture into the mass-marketing medium of television advertising focuses on its enduring qualities and, ironically, for its debut it concentrates on its resistance to the change it is actually embracing.
It seems inevitable that the major, national television networks with their truly mass audiences will succumb to spirits advertising sooner rather than later. The economic effectiveness of television advertising is plain to see, but that would not be enough to swing it for the distillers. It is the ubiquity of spirits advertising on a plethora of local cable networks that makes the resistance of the national networks increasingly hard to justify. The genie is out of the bottle and it is hard to see how to get him back in..