Soft Ads for Hard Liquor?

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If you can't get into an exclusive club, you can always start your own. That's what the guys do in the Smirnoff Ice commercial, creating their own hot nightspot filled with chic, young things and sweaty bottles of malt beverages.

And that's pretty much what Diageo, Smirnoff's parent company, is doing to get TV exposure. To protect minors, the networks don't accept hard-liquor commercials, so Smirnoff, one of the world's top vodka makers, started its own brand of malt drink with Smirnoff Ice, which is deemed fit for the airwaves. Many other distillers are touting their flavored malt beverages to go up against the beer companies — and get exposure. Drinks such as Bacardi Silver, Captain Morgan Gold (also by Diageo), Jack Daniel's Hard Cola, Skyy Blue, Sauza Diablo, Smirnoff Ice and Stolichnaya Citrona contain no distilled spirits but look a lot like their hard-core siblings.

Since Smirnoff Ice's launch in early 2001, "malternatives" have captured 4.5% of the $8 billion beer market. But industry analysts say the new brands are aimed in part at getting the hard-liquor logos on TV. "A great deal of the advertising frenzy is the ability to put the company name out," says Tom Pirko of BevMark, a California beverage-consulting concern. "In a sense, the drinks are impostors." James Thompson, marketing vice president for Diageo, denies any such motivation. He says the ads simply target consumers thirsty for the next new flavor. He estimates that malternative brands will spend $250 million to $300 million on television ads this year.

Do the malt beverages lure underage drinkers to the hard stuff, as critics say? "The ads feature heavy party scenes with lots of quick, MTV-inspired movements and things that adults wouldn't do," says George Hacker of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer-advocacy group. "Themes of rebellion and getting around authority subtly suggest underage drinking." But in June the Federal Trade Commission found no evidence that these ads target minors. And spirit makers insist that they advertise responsibly on shows watched mostly by adults.

Will the malternatives increase demand for the parent brands? "It's not why we're doing this," says Diageo's Thompson. "But that would be nice."