The Booze Backlash

In the first of a two-part series, Campaign looks at the potential regulatory threats to advertising. This week: the alcohol market. Alasdair Reid investigates.

Let's face it, hiring Vinnie Jones, a man with two shotguns and a notoriously short fuse, was always going to be an accident waiting to happen. Using him as the front man for a youth-orientated spirits brand was always going to look desperately stupid, even if he managed to stay out of the courts for air-rage incidents or beating up his neighbours.

What next, we all wondered? Were the Kray Twins still with us? Might they be available to front a Babycham commercial or two? If we're being generous to the marketing team at Bacardi-Martini and if we're minded to cut their creative agency a bit of slack, you can just about imagine the circumstances in which using Jones was just about all right. In a certain light, using him might actually seem a bit of a "larf" - and the beauty of it was you could guarantee acres of coverage in the lads' magazines and the Daily Star. After all, Bacardi-Martini was hardly alone in pushing its luck (see pictures opposite). And how was it to know that the moral climate could change so rapidly?

Being less than kind, you might have asked them to leave the Through The Looking Glass culture of the focus group, go outside and open their eyes. The world of Loaded magazine is really cool just so long as you don't have to hose down the blood, urine and vomit encrusted with broken glass that adorns the pedestrianised centres of our towns when the weekend is over.

A backlash was absolutely inevitable - especially when the nation's moral arbiters got a fix on the fact that this went way beyond men behaving badly. Binge drinking is not just about the costs of crime, public disorder and domestic violence, it has major underlying health implications too.

Especially resonant was the realisation that for the first time, serious liver disease was becoming epidemic in young women - a development that no politician or social commentator could be expected to ignore.

So, you didn't have to be Einstein to see the backlash coming. The Government has made several statements of intent, some of them feeble (on-the-spot fines, offenders being marched to cash machines), but the deliberations of its Strategy Unit are expected to be anything but weak. Publication of its findings on alcohol abuse, originally planned for last December, has been many times delayed; but according to leaked conclusions, the very least we can expect are measures against pubs and clubs running irresponsible "happy hour"-type promotions. This is not just a retail problem though, and the document is also bound to embrace the activities of the drinks manufacturers and their marketing strategies.

Could we see a tightening of advertising and marketing guidelines? An end to self-regulation? Even ad bans? But perhaps more importantly, has the advertising industry truly grasped what is happening here? Does it realise just how far it has been caught offside?

According to some campaigners, if you want to get better, the biggest step is actually admitting you have a problem- and they insist that both the drinks industry and its ad agencies are in severe denial. In this respect, they are especially bemused by the likes of Hugh Burkitt, the chief executive of the Marketing Society, and a member of the independent complaints panel of The Portman Group - an organisation set up by the drinks industry to encourage responsible marketing. Burkitt has been notoriously outspoken in condemning the stupidity of individual advertisers, while maintaining that self-regulation does work.

He says: "Some advertising is clearly outside the spirit of the rules but, by and large, the brand owners are often unfairly blamed for the binge drinking situation. The truth is marketing in total is well-controlled - apart from the retail scene. A decade ago, retail was tied to the brewers and they were, by and large, responsible. Now, a more competitive situation has been created but the downside is that there are more things such as promotions and happy hours - and that has become the most important factor."

In fact, Burkitt argues that where self-regulation is concerned, the drinks industry is a good model for other similarly sensitive sectors. He's not alone. Apologists for the marketing strategies pursued by brand owners tend to follow a well-worn path. They argue that advertising can affect brand loyalty within a given sector but has a negligible effect on more fundamental behaviour patterns - such as the determination to go out and get bladdered on a Friday night.

They usually trot out two complementary pieces of evidence. First, the alcopops market, which took off without very much in the way of advertising and in the early days was dominated by Hooper's Hooch. A decade of advertising later and the size of the sector is not notably different but the brand leaders - Bacardi and Smirnoff - are. Then there's the white wine conundrum.

In recent years, the consumption of beers and spirits has been declining while the greatest growth sector has been white wine. This just happens to be the one with the smallest advertising spend behind it.

They also point to evidence that advertising-supported brands account for less than 10 per cent of all UK consumption. And, taking the long view, consumption levels in the UK (units per head of population) have remained more or less level over many years. The UK remains in the lower half of the European Union consumption league table.

But Andrew McNeill, the director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, says that this strategy of shifting blame is terribly predictable and disingenuous. He says: "The question for policy is, given the scale of the problems, is it sensible for alcohol to be as intensively advertised and promoted as it presently is? Our view is that it isn't. There is evidence that advertising affects consumption in general and what is now called binge drinking in particular. The argument isn't just, or even mainly, about specific brands - it's also about the way intensive advertising helps to shape a culture of acceptance of patterns of consumption that impose huge costs, both human and economic. Nor is consumption remaining stable in the UK - it is currently at its highest level for about 100 years and climbing. We do not advocate a complete ban (on alcohol advertising), but we would like to see tougher controls on volume, timing, placing and content."

Will the Government listen? Is self- regulation a dead duck? Some critics of the drinks industry point out that The Portman Group lost the plot a decade ago when it lifted the industry's self- denying ordinance against the advertising of spirits on TV. Its fans point out that it has become an increasingly effective policeman - taking tough decisions such as blocking the launch of a "Viagra pop" called Roxxoff last year. Since 1995, it has been instrumental in getting more than 60 dodgy brands withdrawn from the market.

Its code has also been extended beyond the naming and packaging of products to the monitoring of promotional devices such as websites. (It has never interfered with the media advertising side of things.) And it is now taking affirmative action - a £1 million campaign through M&C Saatchi designed to promote sensible drinking will test in the Central ITV region this spring.

Which makes some activists unsure whether they should laugh or cry. It's a puny gesture, they insist, given that the drinks industry spends more than £200 million on advertising each year. And when have educational campaigns ever done any good?

David Kershaw, the chief executive of M&C Saatchi, thinks he knows the answer. As a graduate trainee, he worked on the early manifestations of the UK's long-running drink-drive campaign. "It took ten years to shift drinking and driving from being almost something you bragged about to something that is regarded now as being totally unacceptable behaviour. You can do that with laddish behaviour too," he insists.

Andrew Brown, the director-general of the Advertising Association and the chairman of the Committee of Advertising Practice, argues strongly in favour of the status quo - regulation of advertising content overseen by Ofcom, which has now taken over from the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority, in adjudicating on broadcast media; and the Advertising Standards Authority, which monitors non-broadcast. But he admits that it may now be time to revisit their codes.

He says: "In 2002, there were 502 new drinks commercials. There were complaints against one, partially upheld. The level of complaints is really very low. Many of the problems are caused by fringe players and brand owners are often the scapegoats for wider problems.

"But again, where there is a new problem the code may well be worth revisiting. Let's wait to see what the Strategy Unit says, then look at the advertising of sensitive categories especially where there is a feeling that the spirit of the ads are in breach of the codes. It's tough for agencies because they are encouraged by clients to be competitive and to work at the edge of the envelope. That can put them in a difficult position."

Actually, Geethika Jayatilaka, the director of policy at the voluntary organisation Alcohol Concern, argues that really is the heart of the matter - if only the industry was brave enough to admit it. She insists the burden of responsibility lies with agency creatives: "We understand that sex is used to sell almost everything these days and we also understand that it is the job of advertising agencies to push the boundaries. But I think they also have to understand that alcohol really is different and that the guidelines mean what they say and are there for very important reasons.

"Alcohol abuse is very costly in all sorts of ways and though we are not asking advertising agencies to take the blame for all the ills of society, we would like to see them shouldering more of their responsibility."

Next week: food advertising.

REGULATIONS GOVERNING ALCOHOL ADVERTISING

Non-broadcast media is covered by voluntary guidelines contained in the Code of Advertising Practice, overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority. Under the code, ads should not encourage excessive drinking, exploit the young or those who are mentally or socially vulnerable. They should not be directed at anyone under 18, nor should they depict anyone under 25 consuming alcohol. Most importantly, ads should not suggest that any alcoholic drink can enhance mental, physical or sexual capabilities, enhance popularity, masculinity, femininity or be linked to sporting achievements.

Content of advertising on radio and TV is regulated by statute overseen and implemented by Ofcom,the successor to the Independent Television Commission and the Radio Authority. The rules are almost identical. Drinking should not target under-18s and anyone associated with drinking must appear to be over 25. Drinking must not be associated with social success, daring, toughness, bravado or sexual attractiveness nor must it appear to overcome boredom, loneliness or other problems. Scenes showing drinks being consumed in one swallow or a few large swallows are unlikely to be acceptable.

The drinks industry's own code of practice, introduced in 1996, is administered by The Portman Group. Under the code, the naming, packaging or promotion of a drink must not suggest any association with sexual success; nor should it encourage illegal, irresponsible or immoderate consumption such as binge drinking, drunkenness or drink-driving. It must not appeal to anyone under 18 or feature images of anyone under 25.

All guidelines must conform to European Commission regulations and although scare stories about EC bans continue to abound, the Commission issued reassurances last year that it had no intentions of bringing forward recommendations to restrict or ban alcohol ads in the foreseeable future.

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