When NBC decided in late 2001 that it would break with tradition and start running ads for hard liquor, it unleashed a firestorm of criticism, from DC politicians to groups that campaign against drunk driving.
NBC ran its first hard-liquor ad for Smirnoff vodka in December 2001 on Saturday Night Live. It had contracted with Diageo, a major international maker of distilled spirits, to air spots through April to test reaction.
Voluntarily, TV networks have not carried hard-liquor ads since 1948, and none of the other major networks followed NBC's controversial decision to drop that ban last year.
NBC hoped restrictions it put in place would answer some critics' concerns about the ads. The network had planned only to run the spots after 9pm, and only on shows whose audiences were more than 85% adults. Actors shown in the ads had to be 30 or older.
Still, with NBC the only network to act, negative reaction was swift.
A congressional committee denounced the move, as did politicos such as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).
The American Medical Association (AMA) had long voiced concerns about alcohol abuse, and decided to vocally oppose NBC's decision. "Public health is a core issue that the AMA strives to address,
says Mike Lynch, director of media relations with the AMA. "We felt strongly that we needed to speak out."
The AMA decided to launch a media relations program expressing its opposition to the NBC decision. Chairman-elect J. Edward Hill had been vocal about alcohol-related issues in the past, and was seen as the logical voice for the association in its efforts to get NBC to change its decision.
The AMA issued a statement from Hill on December 14, the day after NBC's decision was first reported. "The decision by NBC to accept advertising for liquor is shockingly irresponsible, and should be reversed immediately,
the statement began. "It is obvious the network is putting its desire for profit far above the health of our nation."
Media calls came in for further comment, and the AMA's statement was quickly picked up in the press. "By getting our statement out there as quickly as we did, we gave them the other side of the story,
The AMA next focused on reacting to newspaper op-ed pieces and columns on the controversy. Letters were sent to papers that ran both pro- and anti-ad columns, outlining the AMA's position on the issue, and its reactions to others' comments. As a result of such efforts, "even when papers disagreed with us, we were able to get our positions in there," says Lynch. Roughly 20 letters were sent to newspapers.
As other networks announced they wouldn't join NBC, the AMA publicly applauded their decisions.
The AMA also made senior personnel available for radio and TV interviews on the controversy. Media outreach included TV-industry trade titles.
Concerned that the issue was fading from public attention toward the end of February, the AMA ran a full-page ad in The New York Times opposing the NBC decision under the headline, "Watching NBC may be hazardous to your children's health."
A website, liquorfreetv.com, was established by the AMA to provide statistics on underage drinking and allow visitors to e-mail NBC.
On March 20, NBC decided to end its experiment, citing AMA opposition in its statement announcing the reversal. The AMA quickly issued its reaction under the headline "NBC does the right thing."
The association answered about 40 media inquiries on the issue over the life of the controversy, and its website had 185,000 hits. CNN, Electronic Media magazine, and Broadcasting & Cable magazine all covered the AMA's decision to run the Times ad.
The AMA has turned its attention from the NBC flap to college binge drinking.
"We are hoping we can take the good publicity we got on this topic, and segue right into
combating binge drinking, says Jacqui Cook, media manager of news and information for the AMA.
The AMA is also ready to respond should any other network revisit the liquor ad ban.