Jim Beam bourbon has become the latest high profile spirits brand in the US to challenge a faltering voluntary ban on TV advertising. David Robertson asks how long it will be before the major networks follow the lead set by cable channels and drop their resistance to spirits advertising.

Jim Beam bourbon began its first television advertising campaign in the US last month, joining a number of other top brands as they continue to challenge the voluntary ban on showing spirits ads on TV.

Fortune Brands, which owns the 210-year old bourbon, is investing US$8m to US$12m in the new campaign and the company is so impressed by the opportunities that now exist in TV that it expects this to be its leading advertising medium in 2006. This is a radical departure from even 10 years ago when no spirit brands were advertised on US television.

The change is occurring because the voluntary ban on spirit ads, which began for radio shortly after Prohibition ended, has been ditched by a number of leading cable channels. The pace of change is now so great that some in the drinks industry believe that they may soon be able to advertise alongside wine and beer brands on network television.

The ability of the brewers to advertise on network TV (and particularly the holy trinity of ABC, CBS and NBC) has been cited as one of the reasons that the spirits sector went into comparative decline 20 to 30 years ago.

Major brewers such as Anheuser-Busch, SABMiller and Molson Coors continue to invest very heavily on all the TV networks. But distillers have been denied this opportunity because the networks are concerned about viewer backlash as spirits continue to be demonised by some parts of American society.

However, as more cable companies accept spirits advertising the logic for continuing the network TV ban is eroding. Moreover, the vast sums of money being spent by the spirits companies might start to look very attractive if the networks continue to lose viewers to other media.

Seagram was the first company to challenge the TV industry's voluntary ban by advertising its Crown Royal brand on cable in 1996. Since then the amount spent on TV advertising by the spirits industry has grown to US$68m, according to the Distilled Spirits Council. TV expenditure in 2005 could reach US$100m. The number of local and national cable stations running spirits ads has gone from about 50 in 2000 to more than 500 now.

Frank Coleman, spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council, said: "The cable channels are taking spirits ads because they realise that alcohol is alcohol. If they accept beer and wine advertising, there is no rational reason not to accept spirits advertising."

But it isn't just the spirits industry that has driven this change. A considerable improvement in the quality of cable programming has given companies with premium spirits brands the confidence to associate their products with these channels.

The drinks industry now gets to associate itself with hip cable programming (Sex & The City; Nip/Tuck etc.) while also reaching a TV audience for the first time.

Increased TV exposure is one of the factors cited by the Distilled Spirits Council for an increase in the market share of spirits which has risen from 28% in 1999 to 31% last year, with beer losing about 3 percentage points to 53% over the same period.

However, the real bonanza will come if the networks drop their ban on spirits ads. Currently, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, UPN and WB won't take spirits ads but sources in the US spirits industry believe that the last three could change their position soon.

Eventually even ABC, CBS and NBC might decide to face up to criticism from Christian groups and health organisations and accept the drinks-industry dollar. After all, most of the these networks own cable channels that are already taking spirits ads.

The Distilled Spirits Council is confident this will happen. Coleman said: "In the not too distant future networks will make a financial/business decision that they can no longer afford to let the revenue go to the cable nets and over 500 of their own local affiliates that are currently airing spirits advertising. It is neither fair, rational or good business for them to ban spirits advertising."

The decision by Fortune Brands to start Jim Beam advertising could therefore be timely. Jim Beam will join a number of other high profile brands like Absolut, Captain Morgan and Jack Daniels now on American TV.

The Jim Beam ads will show alongside programmes like The Best Darn Sports Show Period, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Nip/Tuck. Like other distillers, Fortune Brands will target programmes where the average viewer age is over 21, as stipulated by industry's own rules.

"Our first-ever television commercial does a great job bringing the Jim Beam brand to life," said marketing director Keith Neumann. "The historic and story-telling nature of the commercial is educational and visually powerful."

Jim Beam's ad, designed to play on the brand's authenticity and integrity, shows a man rolling a bourbon barrel through the company's warehouse as the years roll by. The voice over says: "Whoever said change is good knows squat about bourbon. For 210 years and seven generations, we've stayed true to the original Beam family recipe. Here's to stubbornness."

The question now is whether an ad like Jim Beam's "here's to stubbornness" will eventually reach the networks. This will be determined by the stubbornness of the multinationals that now control the US media, and how much they need the drinks industry's marketing budget.