Opinion: Perspective - Why calls for ban on booze ads are just the start

Everyone's talking about banning booze advertising again. Surely you didn't imagine that this issue would die before all alcohol advertising is scrapped.

The fact is that there are far too many vocal and impassioned pressure groups at play to allow sense and self-regulation to prevail.

Now this week the media has been full of reports on the British Medical Association's call for a total ban on alcohol advertising. And because binge-drinking makes for popular headlines, the story has been given a big public platform. And because doctors are harder to ignore than the single-issue protest groups, nobody working in this industry can afford to disregard the seriousness of this latest salvo.

The Government may recognise the economic benefits of supporting the brewing industry and of protecting the revenue streams it supplies to the media, sports, arts and communications industries, but pressure continues to mount.

So what should the advertising industry do? It already does a lot, of course. The Advertising Standards Authority's self-regulation system has pushed the rules on booze ads as far as is palatable for an industry that is trying to market a product that is legally available. And those rules are rigorously monitored and imposed. And the ad business has worked with the brewing industry to develop sensible drinking messages and has worked with the Government to develop a number of powerful anti-binge-drinking ads.

Even so, the bald truth is that there's little evidence that these pejorative messages (with their relatively modest budgets) have made much difference to our drinking culture, just as there's equally little evidence to suggest that alcohol advertising inducts young drinkers rather than merely influencing brand choice. The BMA - of course - has produced no evidence that banning alcohol advertising would be effective. On the other hand, the impact such a ban would have on jobs, on the arts and sports industries that rely on alcohol brands for funding and the impact on the wider economy is much easier to demonstrate.

Rock bottom, it's obvious to anyone without an agenda that advertising is not the problem. Mind you, the brewing industry has done itself few favours over the years. It was slow to address the full force of the anti-alcohol brigade with tighter advertising rules. And the invention of the alcopops market was a blatant red rag that has done untold damage to the defence of the alcohol industry at large.

The ad industry's reponse, whatever it is, must be visible, energetic and must demonstrate how seriously the industry takes the issue. The change4life campaign is not a bad blueprint. By putting financial and creative support behind a cross-industry initiative to encourage healthy eating, the power of advertising to influence positive change is being forcefully demonstrated. We need something similar for alcohol, bigger, more impactful and more committed than Drinkaware.

And let's be clear. If an alcohol ad ban is pushed through, it will be a tacit admission that the advertising industry's system of self-regulation is broken. The way will then be clear for full-on government intervention and many other industries will come under very real threat. The repercussions will be serious.

It's now one year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the arrival of the global recession, the communications industry has had some incredibly tough decisions to make.

It hasn't always got it right first time (as Bartle Bogle Hegarty would admit) and it hasn't always managed the inevitable difficulties with clear professionalism. But the recession has fostered some remarkable creative thinking and new business practices that are genuinely exciting and energising. More on this in next week's issue, but let's just say "every cloud ...".