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Alcohol, sex ads get prime TV time

February 13, 2009|Alana Semuels

The airwaves are getting more grown-up, and it's not just the shows.

The Absolut Vodka commercials that aired in Los Angeles and 14 other cities during Sunday night's Grammy Awards marked the first time in years that liquor ads ran in prime time on network-owned stations.

Also crowding the airwaves during heavy viewing hours are infomercials once reserved for the middle of the night and ads touting extramarital affairs and the intimate uses of K-Y Jelly.

As the recession takes its toll on firms that rely on advertising, TV stations aren't the only companies running ads once considered inappropriate.

In recent months, the NBA rescinded a ban on courtside advertising by liquor companies. Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. did the same for ads they run on their websites. Billboard operators have allowed more strip clubs to hawk their establishments on roadside signs.

"Given the economy, there are publishers and media outlets that are doing what they have to to survive," said Steve Hall, an ad-industry veteran who publishes the website AdRants.

Standards for advertising have been changing for decades, just as they have for the TV shows they accompany. For example, the number of distilled-spirits commercials on cable TV tripled from 2001 to 2007, said David Jernigan, associate professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.

But marketing experts say the trend has accelerated since the financial crisis began.

"When you have the evaporation of advertising revenue, you have to look for new and creative ways of getting sellers in the door," said Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council. "It's coming in the way of adult-themed products and content."

Listeners of KROQ-FM (106.7) in Los Angeles might have been surprised to hear ads for Ashley Madison Agency, which promotes extramarital affairs, while drinking their morning coffee this week.

"Sign up today and I will guarantee you an affair to remember," the company's president urges, directing listeners to the company's website.

The Canadian company's ads have been appearing in more places, including on a Houston NBC affiliate during the Super Bowl. Cable companies that once rejected the firm's ads are now having second thoughts, said Noel Biderman, president of Ashley Madison Agency.

A year ago, no broadcast TV group would have agreed to run distilled-spirit ads, said Kathy Doyle, senior vice president and director of local broadcast for Universal McCann, a major ad buyer. She pitched them after WNBC-TV in New York ran a late-night ad for Bacardi rum in November 2007. In the last few months, nearly every one has considered it.

"The bottom's dropped out in the market, and they're looking for new sources of revenue," she said.

Some publishers and stations acknowledge that the economy has forced changes in the type of ads they are willing to accept.

"We're looking at a different world than we were three years ago, relative to the economy," said Jim Burke, president of sales for Fox Television Stations group, which owns and operates about two dozen local Fox stations. "We're looking at a number of categories, trying to find ways to increase our revenue."

Alcohol companies are at the forefront of this trend, said George Hacker, director of the alcohol policies project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. His organization, with support from dozens of coaches and schools, has been trying to persuade the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. to ban alcohol ads from broadcasts of its sporting events. The NCAA denied the request in August.

The Absolut ad that ran around 10 p.m. during the Grammys -- on KCBS-TV Channel 2 in Los Angeles -- doesn't show anyone drinking the vodka. Instead it shows a marketplace in which kisses and hugs serve as currency, then fades to an Absolut bottle.

The ad has continued to run this week on KTTV-TV Channel 11 as well as KCAL-TV Channel 9 and KTLA-TV Channel 5, whose parent company, Tribune Co., also owns the Los Angeles Times. It's also being shown in markets such as San Francisco, New York and Chicago.

Mike Nelson, a spokesman for CBS Television Stations, said individual station managers could decide which ads to run, and that they "determined that the [content] for this particular spot is tasteful and appropriate for the stations' late-evening audiences."

Several issues motivated Facebook and Google to change their policies on alcohol ads, the Internet giants said.

Facebook now allows software developers to promote alcohol in programs they create to run on the social-networking website, as long as they prevent anyone under age 21 from accessing them. Google changed its policy in December to let advertisers bid for ad placement alongside search terms targeting hard-alcohol and liqueur drinkers in the U.S. It had relaxed its policies about beer-related ads months earlier.

"It's based on user experience and the fact that many folks have been asking for it for a long time," a Google spokeswoman said.

Letting ad standards slip is as dangerous as doing the same for content, said Mark Fitzgerald, editor at large with Editor & Publisher, a newspaper industry trade journal. He said he had noticed more ads that wouldn't have made the cut, even on the front pages, and that adult-focused companies had become more suggestive with what they depict in their ads.

Ads should "set a tone, have a little bit of class, suggest you're coming into good real estate," he said.

But in all media, the real estate is increasingly up for grabs. That creates new opportunities for companies such as R2C Group, an ad agency whose clients include Total Gym (pitched by Chuck Norris) and an Obama commemorative coin among its infomercial clients.

"Car dealers are pulling off the air, retailers are pulling off the air, which opens more time to our clients," R2C Group Chief Executive Tim O'Leary said. "We had a very good year."

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alana.semuels@latimes.com

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