Close-up: How should adland react to the BMA?

Agencies fight back after the BMA calls for an all-out ban on alcohol advertising.

It's nothing new for adland to be attacked on the issue of alcohol advertising, but last week saw the industry take its biggest hit yet as the British Medical Association called for an all-out ban.

The ploy has sent a ripple of fear through the business, with many wondering whether, this time, the damage will be irreparable.

The BMA report, Under The Influence, also calls for bans on alcohol sponsorship of outdoor events, an end to promotional deals such as "happy hours" and a call for a minimum price per unit on alcoholic drinks and taxation higher than the rate of inflation.

Professor Gerard Hastings, the author of the report, says: "Given the alcohol industry spends £800 million a year in promoting alcohol in the UK, it is no surprise that children and young people see it everywhere. The number of promotional activities just serves to normalise alcohol as an essential part of every-day life. It is no surprise that young people are drawn to it."

However, despite this, many believe that the report is lacking in any new or hard evidence linking alcohol consumption and advertising. One source suggests that the report isn't aimed at achieving a full ban, but is being used as a headline-grabbing ploy to force through other measures such as higher taxation and minimum price per unit.

As a response to the attack, Nigel Pollard, the head of social responsibility at Scottish & Newcastle, points to recent research commissioned by the Government - a KPMG review into the industry's social responsibility standards - that failed to establish evidence of a connection between advertising and alcohol harm.

He also mentions a University of Sheffield study into the connection between alcohol pricing and promotions that was commissioned by the Department of Health last year and concluded that there is no link and says that banning alcohol advertising leads to more price promotions from brewers, which itself leads to higher consumption.

Because this is not the first time adland has come under fire, there are arguments in place for brewers and agencies to use in fighting off the calls for bans - such as pointing to the existing regulations that already place hefty curbs on alcohol advertising or a recent Advertising Standards Authority report showing 99 per cent of alcohol ads monitored were compliant with the BCAP and CAP regulations. Pollard adds: "What the BMA doesn't realise is that advertising only helps people switch brands - it's not creating an army of new drinkers."

However, there are many - especially those who remember the same battle against the anti-smoking lobbyists - who believe that this tactic is old and ineffective.

Tim Lindsay, the chairman of TBWA\Media Arts London, says: "It's a shame that they're rolling out this defence. It didn't work before and it won't work now. There are other ways around the issue - the industry just needs to work hard to find what these are."

Tim Duffy, the chief executive of M&C Saatchi, agrees and says that the only way to respond to the BMA's attack is to try to work closely with all of the parties involved to create a collaborative approach that educates and informs about alcohol misuse while allowing marketing to continue.

"If we're to come out of this unscathed, we can't be combative. It's not about one side winning, it's about making sure people know as much as possible about the dangers of drinking and know how to drink responsibly," he says.

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LOBBY GROUP - Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of British Medical Association science and ethics

"Today, a ban isn't likely, but, in the future, it's very likely. The alcohol industry will struggle to battle this forever.

"Watersheds and regulations don't work. Young people still recognise brands and will recognise an ad even with the brand taken out. Brand building is what agencies are paid to do - our society is awash with pro-alcohol messaging and marketing.

"The alcohol industry misunderstands the problem - it's not a minority but 20 per cent to a third of the nation dangerously binge-drink. Advertising needs to be part of the solution, which, at the moment, it is not."

TRADE BODY - Michael Thompson, head of communications and external affairs, The Portman Group

"The BMA was very ambitious in its call - but it doesn't reflect the Government's concerns. It's far more concerned with loss leader and price promotions than alcohol advertising.

"Failing to highlight advertising that isn't responsible is a big failing in its attack - it should be working with us to understand the regulations and be involved in the ad process. It's very unlikely that there will be any sort of ban - we've been working very hard with the Government, the Tories and the Advertising Standards Authority.

"Industry needs to make sure that it maintains its standards and that evidence about alcohol advertising is properly presented."

AGENCY HEAD - Tim Duffy, chief executive, M&C Saatchi

"We should respond robustly, but differently from how we fought tobacco. Saying that advertising just helps people switch between brands instead of bringing new drinkers into the industry is outdated now.

"There is a bigger question to do with responsibility. Rather than a knee-jerk response to ban ads, you need to look at all the parties involved to take responsibility and work together to change things.

"There is power in joint action, just like we've seen in our Change4Life anti-obesity work. That showed you can get much more done with collaboration than fighting each other."

CLIENT - Nigel Pollard, head of social responsibility, Scottish & Newcastle

"The industry has to carry on what it's doing, stay strong and continue to stick to the guidelines. We need to educate further that alcohol is not something to be abused or misused.

"Education is the answer - not bashing people on the head with a stick.We can do more, though. We have to continue to adjust to the social fabric - we need to begin applying our strong responsible values to social media.

"Advertising just switches brands - it does not create an army of new drinkers. The BMA is a professional body and has a view - which is fair enough - but it is a lobby group, it doesn't set government policy."