Close-Up: Will binge-drinking prompt ad curbs?

Adland hopes to avoid censure in government inquiry into alcohol misuse. Noel Bussey reports.

Fighting, vomiting, public urination, visits to the A&E and arrests are the norm on Britain's streets every Friday and Saturday night. The cause, binge-drinking, has become a part of British culture that everybody is talking and writing about, and a problem the Government is desperate to get to the root of. As a result, an all-party Commons Health Select Committee has launched an investigation into alcohol misuse.

The committee will attempt to gather evidence about all the issues surrounding binge-drinking, from loss-leader pricing to availability, but there is still a fear that adland will fall foul of the usual scapegoating and again bear the brunt of the nation's, and therefore the Government's, ire through further controls, including a 9pm watershed.

One insider says: "Innocent until proven guilty is easy to use in court cases but seems to be forgotten when it comes to corporate cases."

This problem is made worse because so many agency budgets are bolstered by substantial spend from alcohol companies, which means that agencies are obviously unable to argue that alcohol ads have no effect.

While most in adland seem to agree that binge-drinking and alcohol advertising are not linked, there is no real evidence so far to back this view. Agencies thus find themselves in the position of having to say that their ads don't have an effect on binge-drinking, while still trying to sell the product to the consumer to drink responsibly.

One commentator says: "The binge situation is much different from what we've faced before, such as cigarette advertising or previous alcohol health problems, because it is penalising those who act responsibly because of the actions of a few that don't, whether that's with advertisers and advertising or with people drinking in everyday life."

However, in what seems like positive news for the industry, Kevin Barron, the chairman of the Health Select Committee, says that, with binge-drinking, the Government will take a more level-headed approach than it has with previous problems.

He adds: "The Government has taken the issue of alcohol misuse so seriously because of the anti-social behaviour it creates, but, at this time, we have an open mind to the idea of further alcohol ad curbs. There is nothing planned."

The Advertising Association is also confident that its, and ad-land's, links with Whitehall are strong enough now that, this time, the industry won't be immediately blamed and have its creativity and power to serve its clients reduced.

"The remit of this inquiry is not primarily to do with advertising," Rae Burden, the chief operating officer of the AA, says. Other areas include the scale of ill-health related to alcohol misuse, the consequences for the NHS and central government policy.

In fact, advertising may well be looked upon to work as a force for good in the battle against alcohol misuse. "There is definitely a role for advertising to make binge-drinking socially unacceptable," Hamish Pringle, the chief executive of the IPA, says. "As long as it does not encroach on our ability to service clients."

Binge-drinking is a hot topic at the moment and the Government requires answers. But it also needs to see that it is a societal issue that must be fully understood before any blame is apportioned.

There won't be any answers until the investigation is concluded, but the way in which it is being handled means the early signs point to a positive outcome for the industry.

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MP - Kevin Barron, chairman, Health Select Committee

"Despite the problems of binge-drinking, we don't see alcohol as having the same threat as tobacco did - so we won't be classing it in the same way.

"The investigation we are carrying out is just that - an investigation. And we will find what we find.

"Of course, advertising regulation is part of it, but so is pricing, promotion and availability, and we're not saying one way or the other yet if it will lead to more advertising curbs."

SUIT - Dominic Stinton, account director on COI anti-drinking, VCCP

"The anti-binge-drinking strategy is to highlight the ill-effects of alcohol misuse while showing that it's a societal problem. Advertising can't be blamed - you can't curb something just because a few people ruin it, and I think the Government knows this.

"The irony is that anti-binge-drinking ads are now beginning to look like the really successful alcohol advertising of the past anyway - so the spark is still there, it's just that the impetus has changed."

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

"Of course, it may be that alcohol advertising regulations will evolve further over time, particularly in the light of growing consumer interests in making informed decisions and lifestyle choices.

"Our hope is that the Commons Select Committee will take the bigger picture into consideration and look at alcohol and health in the context of the many complex factors that form our drinking habits.

"What would be hugely disappointing is an unnecessary knee-jerk reaction to the behaviour of a small minority within society, who are hell-bent on excessive consumption and probably least likely to respond to advertising in the first place."

AGENCY HEAD - Ian Pearman, managing director, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

"A watershed, if it were introduced, is not ideal, but it is manageable. Agencies have dealt with regulations before - we just have to be more resourceful. However, is there really evidence that links advertising with binge-drinking?

"Our problem as an industry is that we can't argue that our ads don't have an effect because we can't be seen to be saying that our advertising doesn't work."

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