Close-Up: Live issue - Can alcohol ads continue to survive?

The ASA's rulings against Smirnoff Ice and WKD may set a difficult precedent, Noel Bussey says.

This week, both Diageo and Beverage Brands (UK) felt the force of the Advertising Standards Authority's power. The alcohol manufacturers saw bans slapped on their advertising, respectively, for Smirnoff Ice and WKD.

The ASA ruled that the ads had a strong appeal to under-18s. This put them in direct contravention of the Advertising Standards Code, which was revised in January 2005 following increased concern over the rise of binge-drinking and anti-social behaviour among young people.

Alcohol ads can now no longer link drinking with sexual activity or imply it increases attractiveness. They must also not be seen to be appealing to under-18s, in particular by reflecting youth culture, something the ASA ruled the Smirnoff Ice and WKD campaigns did.

Diageo disagrees, and believes that it has enough fail-safes in place to self-regulate properly the advertising it creates. The company has a three-stage marketing code by which its ads are vetted against the regulations: the ad is checked by the agency at the script stage, again once it has been made, and, finally, when it is submitted to the BACC.

The bans are the first since the new regulations were introduced, and there are fears that the precedents they set could change the way in which alcohol advertising is created in the future.

One of the points that the ASA raised was that the Smirnoff Ice Uri character was linked to popular culture because the actor had been in a band in Iceland.

The ruling now means that agencies will have to carry out thorough background checks of the actors they use, no matter what brand of alcohol they are fronting campaigns for.

Kate Stanners, the executive creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi, believes Smirnoff Ice and WKD came under closer scrutiny because they were for brands targeted at younger drinkers: "Even though our Carlsberg work is aimed at older drinkers, we still have many problems with the age rulings. Alcopop companies need to find new ways to advertise. In the past 18 months, we have had to change our ideas on advertising massively."

While agencies and advertisers are concerned by the rulings, alcohol awareness groups seem generally happy with alcohol advertising and the way that it is monitored.

Neither the Portman Group nor the charity Alcohol Concern felt the issue was prominent enough to comment on. And a spokeswoman for Turning Point, a social care organisation that offers help to people affected by alcohol and drug misuse, says: "We are happy with how the ads are regulated and with the agencies that create them."

David Golding, the planning director at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, believes that despite the possible changes the rulings may bring, it doesn't have to mean the end for alcohol ads, especially ones aimed at younger audiences.

"The obvious aspect of the discussion around the restrictions placed on targeting young drinkers is why TV is still used at all," he says, arguing that brands which have been formulated for younger tastes should be those pioneering new media. "You have to wonder whether these brands use TV because their marketers are more familiar with it than their consumers."

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DIAGEO - Kate Blakely, head of social responsibility, Diageo Great Britain

"At the moment, we see our approach to our advertising as business as usual. We don't agree with the rulings and are in the process of setting up an independent review. As with the relationship with our agencies, it is also business as usual.

"Our main concern is to the precedents that this ruling sets. Our agencies will now have to look differently on the actors and music they use as well as the settings of the ads.

"Interpretation of regulations is always difficult. We need to discuss this with the ASA and the BACC and find a joined-up approach to how they are interpreted."

ASA - Claire Forbes, director of communications, Advertising Standards Authority

"This shouldn't come as a surprise to any advertiser. Clients and agencies had nine months' grace to adapt to the new regulations and they all worked closely with us when we inked them.

"I don't think this ruling will have a major impact on alcohol advertising because agencies have already taken the changes on board. In the past 18 months, it is clear to see that alcohol ads have changed dramatically.

"Also, there isn't a bias towards ads that are aimed at 18- to 24-year-olds, because no alcohol advertising should appeal to under-18s. But if you're advertising an after-dinner liqueur you're less likely to fall foul of the regulations."

STRATEGIST - David Golding, planning director, Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

"The issue of targeting young and very young drinkers has become an advertising debate because advertising is the most public face of the brand.

"Advertising gets noticed when it amplifies a truth about a product and its market. This suggests that the issue of young and under-age drinking should go beyond just advertising to the manufacturers and even society as a whole.

"That said, advertising agencies and their clients could help themselves more, and even lead the debate, by investigating more universal insights than those that just chime with 17-year-old boys."

CREATIVE - Kate Stanners, executive creative director, Saatchi & Saatchi

"These rulings are going to mean that forward-thinking advertisers will just have to find new ways to reach their audience. However, this needs to be changed anyway because the target audience doesn't classically watch TV.

"The changes to the rules are just making things more and more difficult for agencies. They are now very convoluted and we have to work harder and harder to make original advertising that is appealing and effective.

"There is also a suspicion from these bodies that we are constantly trying to sneak work past them, which is just not true."

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