[BND] DISCUS Adopts a Code of Conduct That Even Nonmembers Obey

(This is another in a series of articles based upon in-depth interviews with the main participants.)

Code of Conduct

Code of Conduct

To make liquor socially acceptable, every DISCUS member – indeed, ideally, every industry member – needed to insure all their advertising was responsible. While some brewers in recent years had featured boys acting badly in their advertising, it was essential that distilled spirits producers avoid that.  Cressy turned to Lynn Omlie, DISCUS’s general counsel, who worked with the association’s legal committee to put together a new code of conduct.  The Code would prohibit the use of a child or images that would appeal to a child or use of the name Santa Claus; promote responsible use of alcohol by those of legal drinking age; prohibit brand identification, including logos, trademarks or names on clothing or other items intended for use by persons below the legal purchase age, and prohibit portrayal of intoxicated persons in any way that suggests intoxication is socially acceptable conduct (DISCUS-Code, 2021).

A key part of the code would be defining what media was not acceptable for spirits advertising. That standard was ultimately tied to the Census.  When the code was first promulgated, adults represented 70% of the U.S. population, so the Code said spirits producers should not advertise in magazines, newspapers and broadcast programming in which adults did not represent at least 70% of the audience. When the next Census came out, adults now represented 71.3% of the U.S. population, so the audience standard was raised to 71.3%.

The prior standard had been 51% of the audience should be adults.  “That made no sense,” Cressy recalled.  Once the Code was published, and an adjudication process was established, both DISCUS members and non-members accepted rulings that interpreted what was responsible and what wasn’t.  The Code went beyond merely defining what media was acceptable for advertising. In one case, the adjudicators ruled that a clock in the background that showed 2 o’clock in the morning was a violation.

Establishing a Code of Responsible Practices in advertising was key to winning the trust of legislators as DISCUS began to seek increased market access.

Increasing Market Access

Next, Cressy turned DISCUS to gaining market access.  The first objective was to increase the number of states in which spirits could be sold on Sunday.  “Our argument was the whatever beer and wine can do, we should be able to do,” Cressy said.  New York and Pennsylvania became the first two states to adopt legislation authorizing Sunday sales although some smaller retailers in New York opposed Sunday sales because they would have to work on Sundays.  Ultimately while Cressy was leading DISCUS, 17 states either passed legislation or adopted regulations to make Sunday sales legal.

While seeking to get the legal ability for retailers to sell spirits on Sunday, DISCUS also sought authority for tastings.  “Tastings are very important for selling wine and beer.  Our argument was the if wine and beer could have tastings, we should be able to have tastings,” Cressy recalled.  But it wasn’t just a matter of getting a law changed to allow tastings. It was necessary to come up with the right pour size, the number of pours a person could have.  “I didn’t want people slopping down a bunch of stuff,” Cressy explained.  “I wanted them to literally taste and buy.”  While Cressy was president of DISCUS, 10 additional states authorized tastings, bringing the total to 34 (DISCUS 2021-A). Being legally able to offer tastings was a form of nonverbal communication, communicating the idea that spirits was no different than other alcohol beverages.

Television Advertising

Alcohol equivalence was the cornerstone to getting spirits advertising on television.  (Hawkins, personal communication, 2020).  As noted earlier, spirits producers had voluntarily abstained from broadcast advertising from Repeal, even as beer, and to a lesser extent, wine had become major TV advertisers. It had been such a long-standing practice that as Cressy, Coleman and Guy Fox, public affairs executive vice president of Diageo would visit television stations, the first question they were asked was, “but isn’t it illegal to advertise spirits on TV?”

The first attempt to advertise on TV occurred before Cressy arrived at DISCUS. Crown Royal, which was produced by Joseph E. Seagram & Sons in Canada, sought to advertise on TV in Texas but the pushback was “excessive,” Cressy said.  Eventually, Seagram was able to place a Crown Royal ad late at night on a small Corpus Christi, Texas, station.  A few other local stations would also accept spirits advertising. But network television proved to be a very hard nut to crack.

In 2000, the National Association of Broadcasters rejected DISCUS’s attempt to have a booth at the association’s annual convention.  DISCUS worked around the major networks, which would not carry television ads for distilled spirits, and BET and a Hispanic network did agree to carry the Crown Royal ads. DISCUS then turned to large state broadcaster associations to make the argument that spirits advertising should be on television.  The second time DISCUS sought a booth at the NAB convention in 2006, it was successful.  Not only was it able to get a booth, it was able to get an ad on the NBC outlet in Las Vegas, and it bought time on all major hotel TV systems.

Not surprisingly, beer interests resisted.  “It was all-out war,” Coleman recalled.  But when Cressy, Coleman and Hawkins would visit newsrooms, they saw “a ton of women with fancy purses.” It wasn’t just in newsrooms, either, but included professional women across the spectrum who didn’t want to be seen holding a light beer (Coleman, 2020).  That observation led to a new strategy: Stymied in its attempts to place national network advertising, DISCUS turned to magazines and hired Nike Public Relations to get stories about fancy cocktails into a variety of women’s magazine.  Unlike advertising in which payment results in absolute control of message, using news and editorial operations involves multiple risks, including the possibility that no story would result (which is why this is called “earned media” – the story has to be compelling enough to earn a writer’s and an editor’s interest) and there is no guarantee the resulting story won’t be at least partially negative.   Nike was successful in getting magazines such as Glamor and Vogue to carry stories about cocktails.  Men’s magazines also did some cocktail stories.  The objective was to turn spirits into a little luxury and to change the image into a more sophisticated, elegant product.

But when the “Great Recession” occurred in 2008-2009, advertising revenues on the major television networks plunged, falling about 21.2% in 2009 from a year earlier (Marketing Charts, 2010). This gave distilled spirits an opening, and the first successful prime-time advertising buy was for Grey Goose on CNN after 9 p.m.  Margaret Carlson, the journalist and political pundit, had introduced Coleman to Walter Issacson, who was heading CNN, at a Bloomberg party after the White House Correspondents Dinner.  Coleman made the case to Issacson that alcohol is alcohol. Issacson nodded his head in agreement “and said some good stuff.”  Coleman and Cressy followed up with Yuri Cato, another friend of Coleman’s, was working as a graphic designer at the Cable News Network. Margaret Carlson, another friend of Coleman, introduced him to CNN's head of advertising.

Cressy made a presentation about how spirits were socially responsible and spirits advertisements could be a great source of revenue. Coleman asked why CNN wouldn’t take distilled spirits advertising. Issacson scratched his chin and said, “Yeh, why don’t we?” Soon CNN carried commercials for distilled spirits.

Later, Yuri, a graphic designer, connected Cressy and Coleman to the president of CNN. One of DISCUS's major goals with television was to reclaim market share that Cressy believed the beer industry had taken from distilled spirits because distillers had not advertised on television.

One place where beer captured a lot of eyeballs was televised National Football League games. The head of marketing for the NFL was a former marketing executive for Diageo. Also, Tom Benson, a successful automobile dealer and banker, owned the New Orleans Saints football team took Cressy to meet NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who allowed individual teams to do deals with spirits producers.

But network television would be the prize, the key to being able to advertise on a large scale, and that would have to wait a bit longer. .

Meanwhile, DISCUS negotiated a deal with NASCAR to allow distillers to sponsor a car.  “We gave the companies cover,” Coleman recalled.  “So, even though the networks wouldn’t take spirits commercials, they had the Crown Royal car going around the track.  We took beer occasions.”  After NASCAR, one after another league – Major League Baseball, hockey, etc. – began allowing spirits advertising and sponsorship.

Spirits advertisers were able to gain access to another television network about every six months, including cable and sports networks. One of the coups of the era was getting an ad for Jack Daniels behind home plate during Major League Baseball games.  “As the pitcher pitched, you would see the ad for Jack Daniel’s pop up,” Cressy recalled. The spirits companies didn’t “dumb down” their ads to feature frat boys acting badly or over-sexualized women.  Instead, Cressy and others constantly emphasized the importance of producing high-quality advertising.

Coleman’s contacts included a senior vp at the Walt Disney Company who provided an entre to ESPN, which was owned by Disney.

Getting spirits ads on network television was important not only to increasing market share, but also to gaining cultural acceptance. The pervasive influence of network television on American society has long been noted.  (Gloede, 1994)

Next: The Dietary Guidelines