Editorial: Watchdogs must stand firm to protect agencies

A pint of lager and a packet of crisps - somehow, this familiar pairing seems an appropriate summation of the twin challenges advertising has to meet if it is to sustain its popular appeal. The thorny issues of alcohol promotion and the targeting of snack food at children may turn out to be the defining ones for the industry over the coming years. Deal with them effectively and responsibly, and public trust in advertising will be maintained and maybe even enhanced. Failing to do so will cause much damage to its reputation.

So it's welcome news that the Advertising Standards Authority and the BACC will have a tougher set of rules with which to control the content of alcohol commercials on TV. In defending itself against allegations that its activities are encouraging binge-drinking and obesity, the industry finds itself in a broadly similar situation on both counts. In each case, advertising's high profile makes it a scapegoat, carrying a disproportionate amount of the blame.

Indeed, the causes of binge-drinking are less to do with advertising and more to do with the proliferation of bars where teens and twentysomethings can drink themselves into oblivion. The days when they were introduced to sensible drinking by their parents at the local pub are long gone. A clampdown on "happy hours" and "two-for-one" deals is likely to have more effect on reducing loutish behaviour than any concerted attempt to neuter alcohol ads.

That is not to say drinks manufacturers and their agencies are immune from criticism. The natural instinct for creatives is to push the boundary of acceptability. Moreover, the BACC has previously shown a willingness to let them cross that boundary and has been left to rue the consequences.

This should not happen if the rules are enforced robustly but in a common-sense way. Thankfully, the new code seems flexible enough to halt the serial transgressors without forcing, say, the Anthony Minghella-directed Guinness film off air because of its macho associations.

The watchdogs have done the industry no favours by allowing some alcohol ads on air that should never have seen the light of day. Rogue advertisers must be kept in their boxes. Those who were permitted to flaunt the alcohol rules have done enough damage. It hardly bears thinking about if junk-food manufacturers are allowed to do more.

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