Did You Know Liquor Ads Were Once Banned?

By Fred Minnick


Have you’ve ever wondered why whiskey brands advertise less than beer? Or why whiskey models wear more threads than scantily clothed beer ladies?

The reasons may surprise you.

When it comes to alcohol advertising, the American federal government only restricts false claims, but the distilled spirits industry vigorously polices itself. In fact, spirits businesses self-imposed a TV ban, says Frank Coleman, senior vice president of public affairs and communications for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

“It was sort of an early version of corporate social responsibility,” Coleman says.

In the early years of television—back before the average home had 400 stations and six remotes—spirits companies were just happy to be back in business after Prohibition and having their distilleries commandeered for World War II industrial alcohol production. But there was also the factor of those pesky Temperance leagues challenging them.Prohibition repeal gave Temperance supporters a new battleground. Although they failed to keep booze banned, temperance believers targeted alcohol advertising.

From 1943 to 1958, dry politicians led 10 different crusades against alcohol advertising. Each bill—usually sponsored by Republican North Dakota Senator William Langer—was met by powerful alcohol lobbies. Unlike their inability to unite before Prohibition, winemakers, distillers, and brewers worked together with one unified voice: A ban on alcohol advertising is just another form of Prohibition.

Despite strong enthusiasm from up-and-coming politicians, like Sen. Strom Thurmond, all alcohol ad ban bills failed. Nonetheless, the alcohol business knew this threat was not going away. That’s why the spirits industry members strongly enforced its “Code of Responsible Practices” that includes marketing to only appropriately aged adults. For a long time, these guidelines also once restricted television advertising. But the beer industry didn’t follow this edict. From the 1970s to 1990s, beer brands tapped into spirits’ market share because of television ads, says Coleman.

“{The television ad ban} turned out to be not the world’s greatest decision because television ads became the central crossroads of communication in our society,” Coleman says. “Beer ramped up its television advertising profile, which coincided with spirits losing market share, particularly in the late ’80s and the ’90s.”

Then, in 1996, Crown Royal purchased airtime on a small station in Corpus Christi, Texas, and smaller regional cable stations allowed spirits advertising. Suddenly, the self-imposed ban was not only lifted, companies were gearing up huge television ad campaigns around their target audiences. NASCAR allowed spirits sponsorships, and both Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam sponsored cars. NASCAR said spirits were no different than beer. The Federal Trade Commission agrees with NASCAR’s notion, saying liquor advertising is protected under the First Amendment. This new belief has led to widespread growth in liquor TV ad buys, a multimillion dollar industry. Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, Jameson, Jim Beam, and Crown Royal are among the most common whiskey ads, reaching new audiences.

My favorite spirits TV ad was from then Brown-Forman’s Southern Comfort (now owned by Sazerac) commercial series called, “Whatever’s Comfortable.” When it came out, Ad Week named it “ad of the week” Aug. 3, 2012. The Southern Comfort TV ad showed a portly fellow wearing shorts way too tight and a belly bigger than most beer models. With his bushy mustache, curly hair, and purple sunglasses, the actor looks more like a 1970s adult film star than a whiskey promoter. As he struts down the beach, the musical lyrics, “I’ve gotta be me,” echoes and suddenly a dog starts following him. The ad ends with his belly behind a Southern Comfort glass hoisting a flag, the tagline “Whatever’s Comfortable.” It made me laugh to the point that I actually bought a bottle of Southern Comfort to support the series. Of course, that was a mistake. I don’t care for the stuff, just as I don’t care for Bud Light, Keystone Light, or other TV-laden beers.

So, perhaps the moral of the story is, while TV ads are entertaining, they don’t always lead to sound purchases.

Michael Eman
Official Contributor
Kevin Gibson is a free-lance writer who writes for numerous publications, including Bourbon+ magazine, Thrillist, and Alcohol Professor.