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Spirits marketers have already put the squeeze on beermakers this year by stealing market share -- volume is up 2.4% vs. 1% for beers. Now, Diageo's Smirnoff, the world's top-selling premium vodka, is looking to extend that momentum by riding the Atkins low-carb diet craze.
National cable ads starting Monday have a simple message for the key holiday season: 0 carbs. That trumps even the low-carb beers so heavily promoted this year.
Beverage watchers say the ads are the latest salvo in a marketing battle that will last years.
''The low-carb thing is going to be the battleground for the next decade,'' says Joel Whitaker, editor of Kane's Beverage Week. ''Every food and beverage manufacturer is going to try to figure out how they can possibly position their products as low-carb and healthy.''
More evidence of consumers' nutrition consciousness, even with liquor: Tuesday, the National Consumers League requested that federal alcohol regulators require more information on spirits labels, including calories. Diageo is expected to revise labels next year to include serving size, calories, carbs, protein and fat.
Beermakers have been on a roll with a low-carb message: Miller Lite's share is up 0.6% since it began ads in August promoting its 3.2 grams of carbs per 12 ounces. Miller and new Rolling Rock and Coors brews are emulating the success of Anheuser-Busch's low-carb Michelob Ultra. Out just a year, it has a 1.3% share, according to industry tracker Beverage Marketing.
In fact, the Atkins low-carb diet plan calls for no alcohol in the first weeks. It allows ''moderate amounts'' in subsequent stages.
Diageo's vice president of consumer strategy and marketing says the ads, timed for New Year's resolutions and the holidays, are merely stating fact. ''Don't get us wrong: We're not looking to endorse Atkins, and we're not making any health claims,'' says Rob Warren. ''We're just laying out the facts for people if they are interested in a low-carb lifestyle.''
The idea came from a consumer survey that found 63% incorrectly thought vodka, tequila, gin and Scotch whisky have more carbs than beer or wine.
The simple TV ads, by J. Walter Thompson, New York, show Smirnoff being poured into a shot glass as the announcer and the words on the screen proclaim ''zero carbs.''
To further promote the no-carb message, Smirnoff launched a Web site, lowcarbparties.com, and hired food and wine expert Ted Allen from the hit show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to advise. ''These are drinks people might erroneously think are high in carbs,'' Allen says. ''The spirit is not the problem, it's the mixer.''
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