Network Liquor Ads? Fine By Me

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Who says advertising has lost its impact? Media folks and moralists are all abuzz this week after NBC's decision to reintroduce liquor ads during last Saturday's airing of "Saturday Night Live." Citing a deteriorating advertising market, Peacock Network execs are reversing a 50-year-old voluntary ban on television commercials hawking hard alcohol. NBC's choice, the moral authorities among us believe, is a terrible and inevitable symptom of our decaying societal fabric. "The decision by NBC to accept advertising for liquor is shockingly irresponsible and should be reversed immediately," says Dr. J. Edward Hill, chair-elect of the American Medical Association. "It is obvious the network is putting its desire for profit far above the health of our nation — especially young people, who develop many of their ideas and expectations about alcohol from watching TV."

But I'm not at all sure I follow Dr. Hill's logic. How are ads for alcohol any more dangerous than ads for other products that, taken to excess, can cause health problems, like wine, beer or fatty foods? This is an interesting moment for public advocates to get their knickers in a twist, considering all the products that are currently advertised freely, without any semblance of guidelines, all over television.

First of all, what about the children?

One argument against prime-time booze is that it's bad for the kids, that we can't just sit by and allow their precious innocence to be shattered by the occasional advertisement for Absolut. That seems a little ridiculous considering the TV landscape is already clogged with beer commercials featuring half-naked women with no discernible brain power and men whose primary goal in life is to be as drunk as possible as often as possible. Or better yet, let's make sure kids are seeing their fair share of fast food advertisements. Yes, of course! And let's try to forget that according to new government figures, more than 14 percent of American children are overweight — triple the number who tipped the scales in 1980. Obesity, warns Surgeon General David Satcher, is nearly as serious a threat to national health as smoking. Last year, 300,000 Americans died from diseases associated with obesity, while 400,000 died of smoking-related causes.

But hey, that's okay, because at least our 14-year-olds won't be watching tequila ads during The Late Show. Instead, they'll be watching car commercials, dreaming of the glorious day they can take off down the local pike at Autobahn speeds, just like the guy in the ad — you know, the one who always gets the girl? It doesn't matter than accidents rank as the fifth-leading cause of death in the U.S., with car crashes claiming 500 children ages 5 to 9 each year, and injuring 95,000. It's certainly not important to note that car accidents are the leading cause of death and post-natal disability among children older than one year. (It'll also be handy if we can convince ourselves that heavily advertised beer and wine play no part at all in those accidents.)

A plea for responsibility

Hard alcohol — just like beer and wine — is best consumed in a responsible manner by responsible people. If people, including kids, drink too much, it's not going to be because they saw the odd scotch spot on prime time. It will be for exactly the same reason people drink too much beer and wine: Because alcohol makes people feel better, or lets them relax, or dulls their pain, at least in the short term. Yes, it's dangerous, and yes, abusing it can lead to alcoholism. But, lest we forget, this is a free country, and the law permits us all a certain latitude to choose how we'd like to abuse our own bodies. Some people self-medicate with food, others with an occasional drink. When networks start pulling ads for legal products simply because they are bad for you, then we can start talking about a moratorium on beer, wine and liquor commercials.

In the meantime, go ahead and eat your super-sized cheeseburger and fries, and I'll take that gin and tonic. Lots of ice, please.