CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - ALCOHOL ADVERTISING. Will alcohol ads count the cost of their excesses?

Alcohol ads are in danger of straying too far from the rulebook.

The UK's alcohol advertisers are walking a tight rope. Although the public rarely complains about alcohol advertising, those who study "alcohol-related harm" are looking increasingly concerned.

The US-based International Center for Alcohol Policies organised a conference in Dublin recently on "Alcohol Ethics and Society". International delegates, concerned with public health, entered a somewhat uneasy dialogue with booze marketers and their lobbyists.

The conference raised the question: "Are higher standards needed for alcohol advertising than the standard rules on truth and decency?" The right answer is "Yes".

Alcohol advertising brings pleasure to a great many people, but it is also dangerous. Any scientific study of road accidents, violence, admissions to accident and emergency departments, marriage break-ups and sexually transmitted disease will find that excessive use of alcohol has often played a role.

Although average per capita consumption of pure alcohol is in decline in many countries, it has increased in the past decade in the UK and Ireland and there is anecdotal evidence that "binge drinking" - drinking to get drunk - is on the increase among young people in both countries.

Although alcohol advertising is a weak influence on consumption as a whole, its visibility and the fact that it increasingly reflects young drinkers' behaviour makes it an obvious target for further restriction by the public health lobby.

In Europe, alcohol advertising is banned altogether from television in several countries and spirits are banned in several more. The man in charge of alcohol policy in Brussels - Commissioner Byrne - happens to be Irish and he is known to be unhappy about much of the advertising he sees about him.

Most UK advertising follows the letter of the alcohol advertising rules, but many current campaigns do not comply with their spirit. There are three main areas of concern: the targeting of young people, binge drinking and sexual success.

It is a well-documented argument that advertising did not create the alcopops market. However, in recent years skillful advertising by two major spirit brands - Bacardi and Smirnoff - has expanded what is now called the premium packaged spirits market hugely at the expense of beer.

The beer brand owners have responded by putting substantial support behind pre-mixed spirit brands of their own.

It's doubtful that drink advertisers deliberately target under-age drinkers, but it is difficult to exclude them from a TV schedule targeting the 18- to 24-year-old group, and the products themselves provide an easy-to-drink introduction to alcohol. And the style of drinking implied in some ads is not ideal when you consider that young audience.

The description of the latest Bacardi Breezer commercial offered by the library service Xtreme indicates the problem: "Old lady thinks Tom, her high-spirited cat, is ill, but he simply has a hangover. While a doctor visits Tom we see flashbacks of his Bacardi-fuelled wild night out in a club."

The latest Bacardi ad starring Vinnie Jones invites us to the Latin Quarter and Xtreme describes the plot thus: "A flying tray hits and destroys Vinnie's bouquet for his date. Looking for the culprit he enters a bar but ends up ordered about (and then seduced) by a bossy, sexy barmaid." Along the way Vinnie serves what can only be described as some extremely generous measures of Bacardi and strikes exactly the same pose that he adopted in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but instead of shotguns over his shoulders, he now has Bacardi bottles.

Vinnie may not appeal more to under 18-year-olds, but his aggressive persona seems out of step with the spirit of the Independent Television Commission's rules about masculinity and toughness.

Turning to "sexual success", the ITC guidelines warn against drink as an "accessory to sexual relationships" and "sexual innuendo". Despite this, Smirnoff Ice has produced a commercial where a theatre performance "is interrupted by loud breathing and screaming from one of the boxes" and Gordon's introduces the concept of "strip chess". These spots are more "in your face" than innuendo.

Meanwhile, Baileys has added suggestive messages to its sponsorship of Sex And The City and the ITC has upheld 69 (yes, really!) complaints about the Carling "licking the flat clean" commercial. Archers and Reef both demonstrate an interesting 21st century political correctness: that it is acceptable for ladettes to be shown being sexually aggressive towards men. Reef shows a young lady removing a man's boxer shorts. Archers' latest poster shows a well-travelled blonde eyeing up a young man in bright green swimming trunks. She tells us she fancies a bit of lime (nudge, nudge).

My impression is that both the BACC and the Advertising Standards Authority have been judging drink ads by contemporary standards of taste and decency rather than by the stricter alcohol codes. Abbot Ale's sexy lady in bed and Southern Comfort's friendly couple on top of a bus shelter were not seen to be outside the CAP Code, although Smirnoff's naked man on the banisters was reprimanded for being both offensive and displaying drunken behaviour.

I want alcohol advertising to survive in the UK and continue to entertain us in all media, but there is much in the current output of UK advertising that gives ammunition to its opponents. So what needs to happen?

The major drinks companies must review all current UK advertising in light of the issues discussed in Dublin, and the climate of opinion in Brussels, and they need to demonstrate swiftly that they can regulate their own behaviour.

The watchdogs at the ASA and the ITC need to be more vigilant about alcohol advertising. And advertising agencies must break away from the obsessive use of qualitative research in the creative development process, which often means looking for a cheap laugh in a focus group. Great brand campaigns - such as that for Stella Artois - are built on something more substantial than holding up a mirror to the target audience.

Right now, the alcohol advertisers are drinking in the last chance saloon.

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