Close-up: Live issue - safe drinking campaigns Can AMV help binge drinkers in the UK reduce their intake?

Could advertising lead to a safer drinking culture in the UK?

Ever woken up in a strange place, close to throwing up last night's dinner and with a paralysing headache? The chances are you've had a heavy night on the booze. And why not, you might ask. Surely that's what drinking alcohol is all about - getting drunk and suffering the consequences? Virtually everyone does it and the attraction is currently growing.

According to the alcohol watchdog, The Portman Group, more than one million 18- to 24-year-olds regularly drink to extremes - prompting it to launch the campaign "If you do do drink, don't get drunk" in March 2001.

That is exactly the line you would expect a supervisory body to take.

But what about when advertising agencies start producing campaigns to promote responsible drinking habits? That is the task Diageo has asked Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO to undertake, following a pitch against its fellow roster agencies.

But at first glance, responsible drinking and ad agencies may seem rather uneasy bedfellows. Especially when agencies are renowned for creating lighthearted television ads that cast an air of approval over the image of booze-lovers embracing the demon drink with open arms?

Take TBWA\London's latest Strongbow ads, for example, that feature a group of guys rushing around trying to build up a thirst so they can guzzle cider to their heart's content. Or last year's Bacardi Breezer offering from McCann-Erickson, which showed its feline star, Tom, partying hard and then suffering a hangover.

Although alcohol ads may have a weak effect on consumption as a whole (their purpose is to help consumers choose one brand over another), the fact is they remain highly visible while increasingly reflecting and accepting the excessive drinking habits of young Brits.

It is that culture that advertisers are going to have to break through if they are going to stand any chance of altering it. So how much success can AMV hope to achieve in reducing binge drinking?

It is already a tested path in the world of smoking. The tobacco giants Phillip Morris International, JT International and British American Tobacco delivered a controversial anti-smoking campaign back in 2001.

Despite declarations from the companies that they had a long-standing commitment to reducing youth smoking, the campaign still provoked a rally of criticism from the public health pressure group ASH, which claimed it was a smokescreen intended to reduce the pressure on the tobacco industry.

Others went as far as to say that it tapped into young people's desire to defy and actually ended up promoting smoking among a younger audience, normally prevented from being the target of tobacco advertising.

So is the move by drinks advertisers just a ploy to craft a more ethical public face and reposition themselves as caring contributors to society?

Jim Minton, the director of campaigns and communications at The Portman Group, does not believe so. "Diageo and a lot of other drinks companies have social responsibility statements," he says. "But advertising and marketing is a big part of their business. It is not in anyone's interests that consumers are misinformed. And responsible advertising should be part of their business."

According to research by The Portman Group, women's drinking has been increasing since the late 80s with 23 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds questioned admitting to having consumed more than six units of alcohol on at least one day the previous week.

Harry MacAulsan, the deputy chairman of J. Walter Thompson, one of the agencies on the Diageo roster, believes influencing this core group of heavy drinkers is no simple task.

"It might be suitable to produce something hard-hitting," he says. "But alcohol is quite different to cigarettes, where everybody knows every puff takes you one step nearer to death. That isn't true with alcohol, so the Desperate Dan approach isn't as appropriate."

He adds: "I think advertising agencies ought to produce these sort of ads. It should be an obligation if they are earning money from the drinks industry."

Steve Hilton is a partner at Good Business, a corporate responsibility consultancy, and has worked with the likes of Coca-Cola and O2 on increasing brand value through social leadership.

He believes companies should take the idea of promoting responsible drinking a step further and actually use their brands to do it. "Advertisers are in a very powerful position," he says. "But I think it would be a total waste of money to fund anti-binge-drinking ads. The trick is not to support such campaigns as a guilty afterthought while we have brand advertising continuing as before. What would work is for brands to take it on themselves to make it their creative challenge to change the drinking culture in this country."

However, recent research by the Home Office, to support Government plans for a possible drive to reduce binge drinking, suggests that 18- to 24-year-olds would take notice of a shock campaign highlighting the dangers of alcohol abuse. And many of the young people who participated said a "safer drinking" campaign with a lighter, more creative feel might have a marginal effect on their behaviour.

Regardless of which approach they adopt, will the British alcohol advertisers pull out all the stops? Perhaps, more importantly, will they learn from the mistakes of the drugs and Aids campaigns that opted for a lecturing tone and failed.

America has already begun producing ads to raise public awareness about alcohol-related problems.

One of its largest brewers, Coors, not only supports alcohol abuse programmes but has created a range of "serious" ads that tackle, among other issues, under-age drinking.

Let's face it, Diageo, which was unavailable to comment in this piece, does not want to reduce alcohol consumption. A far more serious concern is facing the kind of ban that saw all tobacco advertising outlawed last February. Such a ban is less likely to fall on a responsible advertiser that tries to discourage binge drinking.