Movie, TV tie-ins often sobering for liquor firms
By Gail Schiller
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – For Budweiser, it looked
like a match made in heaven. So America’s top-selling beer tied
the knot with “Wedding Crashers,” paying a product-placement
fee to be featured in the current box office champ and then
ponying up millions of dollars for its first major movie
promotion in 14 years.
But then the Marin Institute, a prominent alcohol industry
watchdog group, decided to do some wedding crashing of its own,
alleging that even though the movie is rated R, the Budweiser
tie-in encourages underage drinking because the movie’s racy
subject matter and its two stars — Owen Wilson and Vince
Vaughn — appeal to male adolescents.
Responding to the criticism, Budweiser brewer
Anheuser-Busch insists the movie is aimed at an adult audience
and a “perfect fit” for the beer. But the criticism underscores
the fine line spirits and beer manufacturers must walk in
trying to take advantage of the growing number of branded
entertainment opportunities in film and television.
The constant scrutiny of their advertising practices by
watchdog groups and government agencies — combined with
network regulations as well as their own self-imposed
advertising and placement regulations — make entertainment
marketing a much more complicated task for liquor manufacturers
than it is for other brands.
“Product placement is much more complicated than
traditional advertising, especially for our industry,” said
Chris Swonger, senior vp corporate affairs for Allied Domecq
North America, which recently was acquired by Pernod Ricard.
“Sometimes it’s in your full control and sometimes it’s not.”
Spirits and beer manufacturers already are facing
class-action lawsuits in several states accusing them of
marketing to underage youth. Coors, which came under fire for
its tie-in with Miramax’s PG-13-rated “Scary Movie 3″ in 2003,
is named in some of the lawsuits along with Anheuser-Busch,
Diageo, Bacardi USA, Brown-Forman, Miller Brewing Co. and
Heineken USA, among others.
But despite the challenges, many spirits and beer brands
are convinced the benefits outweigh the risks and are forging
ahead with integration deals. According to Nielsen’s product
placement tracking service, 102 network shows featured
alcoholic beverages this past season for a total of 9,426
seconds, or 2.6 hours.
For spirits brands especially, placements on broadcast
television can be extremely valuable because the networks do
not accept their ads. “Product placement is the way that liquor
brands choose to get their brands on network television because
they’re not advertising on network television,” said Sarah
Zeiler, director of public relations for the Sidney Frank
Importing Co., which imports and markets German liqueur
Many of the spirits placements on network still appear to
be script-driven or orchestrated by product placement agencies,
which are paid a retainer fee by brands. The five major
broadcast networks said they do not accept paid spirits
placements, though ABC, CBS and NBC do accept payment for beer
placements on a case-by-case basis.
Alcohol marketing watchdog groups take issue with networks’
allowance of spirits placements in their shows, no matter what
their origin. “The ban on spirits on broadcast is the
broadcasters’ ban,” said David Jernigan, research director at
the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Georgetown
University. “If the networks are going to be consistent, they
shouldn’t have placement from spirits companies, either.” The
networks do air beer ads.
According to Nielsen’s Place Views service, the network
shows with the most alcohol placements this past season,
including background shots, were “Eve” with 1,625, CBS’ “Still
Standing” with 851; CBS’ “Two and a Half Men,” with 727, Fox’s
“That ’70s Show” with 667 and WB Network’s “What I Like About
You” with 645. Three of the five — “Eve,” “That ’70s Show” and
“What I Like About You” — tend to be popular with younger
The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS)
and the Beer Institute, the trade associations for the spirits
and beer industries, recommend their members limit advertising
and product placement to audiences where no more than 30% of
the members are under the legal drinking age of 21.
Spirits brands also found another way onto network
television this year after NASCAR, whose races air on NBC and
Fox, lifted its ban on spirits sponsorships, leading to even
more protests from watchdog groups.
Some spirits companies also circumvent the ban on network
advertising by purchasing spots on network affiliates in local
markets, though it costs them much more money that way.
Because of the challenges on network TV, many spirits
companies are taking their money to cable. DISCUS said 85% of
cable and network affiliate stations now accept spirits ads.
But despite the challenges posed by alcohol placements on
television, TV is still a much less problematic platform than
film because TV offers advertisers ratings and demographics
data that give them a good idea of the makeup of the audience
watching the program.
“TV is easier than film,” said Angelo Vassallo, vp
marketing communications for Pernod Ricard, which owns Chivas
Regal and Seagram’s Gin. “We’re much more comfortable with the
fact we know the nature of the audience and that the shows we
pick are geared to an adult 25-plus audience. With movies, it’s
hard to predict.”
But even so, demographics complications can arise in
television placement. “The story line in a series may change so
that it has a slightly younger skew to it,” said Jeffrey Moran,
spokesman for the Absolut Spirits Co. “If you don’t pay that
close attention to the story line and the script, you could
have some problems because some young hip star may wind up on
the show and then you could have a slightly younger audience
Most brands consider R-rated films safe for alcohol
placements and promotions, especially after the FTC recommended
in a 1999 report to Congress that alcohol manufacturers limit
their film tie-ins to R-rated movies or those with mature
But Vassallo said Pernod Ricard generally steers clear of
movies because of the possibility of unexpected rating changes
and the fact that many of today’s films are geared toward a
younger audience, especially big-budget action movies.
And even when a studio or brand expects a film to be rated
R, the Classification and Rating Administration can come back
with a PG-13 rating instead. In certain cases, a studio might
decide long after a placement deal is done to cut some adult
footage from a movie and seek a more marketable PG-13 rating
instead. In the case of “Scary Movie 3,” Coors claimed it
expected the film to get an R rating just as the first two
movies in the franchise did.
Then there are cases where no matter what the rating is, a
movie winds up appealing to a younger audience than
anticipated. Just before “Catwoman” opened in theaters last
year, rumors swirled that the PG-13 film that had partnered
with Allied Domecq’s Kahlua was skewing younger than expected.
While Allied Domecq said it was assured by Warner Bros.
Pictures that at least 70% of “Catwoman’s” audience was over
the age of 21 and thus met DISCUS and its own marketing
guidelines, the company decided to limit its future film
tie-ins to R-rated movies because of the resulting criticism.
Indeed, watchdog groups question why so many superhero
movies, which generally appeal to children, contain alcohol
placements, among them “Spider-Man,” “Spider-Man 2,” “Hellboy”
and “Batman Begins,” which all were rated PG-13. Other recent
PG-13-rated movies to raise concerns over their alcoholic
beverage placements are “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,”
“Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and “XXX: State of the Union.”
Watchdog groups complain that alcohol placements in film
and TV go largely unmonitored. The FTC acknowledged the agency
does not look any more closely at alcohol placements than other
placements unless a specific issue is brought to its attention.
“They (alcohol brands) have self-regulatory practices in place
that would go beyond what the government can mandate,” said
Mary Engle, associate director for advertising practices at the
FTC. “But our concern is whether any form of alcohol
advertisement, including product placement, is unduly appealing
As if government regulators, watchdog groups, network
advertising bans and unexpected film-rating changes were not
enough to worry about, spirits and beer brands also have to be
on their guard to ensure that the creative community doesn’t
depict their products in a negative light. Among the
associations they try to avoid are drinking and driving,
underage drinking and alcohol abuse.
Allied Domecq said that after it refused to grant
permission to Miramax to feature Stoli vodka in “Bad Santa”
because of the depiction of alcohol abuse by Billy Bob
Thornton’s character, the filmmakers displayed a bottle without
the Stoli trademark that still had the same appearance. “We let
them know we weren’t happy about it,” Swonger said. Miramax
Coincidentally, Budweiser’s one prominent placement in
“Crashers” is a scene in which a depressed and heartbroken
Wilson is drinking a Bud to drown his sorrows.