WORLD: ANALYSIS - French ad industry shows the way for alcohol self-regulation

Advertising restrictions do not always mean creativity suffers, Mark Tungate says.

The advertising industry across the European Union faces a tough choice regarding the advertising of alcohol: either countries adopt more responsible self-regulation or they will have blanket restrictions imposed on them by the European Commission.

Dominic Lyle, the director-general of the European Association of Communication Agencies, says: "There is no European harmonisation of alcohol advertising - although the EC would very much like to see it. Instead, restrictions are being introduced by the individual member states, driven by concerns about alcohol abuse within their health authorities and in particular at the World Health Organisation."

Bodies such as the EACA are pushing for self-regulation across Europe, citing the UK, Germany and France as examples of best practice. "We have recently been on a tour, encouraging new EU members to adopt a self-regulatory system," Lyle says. "If agencies don't take a responsible approach, EC legislation will come - and it will hurt."

Across the board, the rules governing alcohol promotion are likely to get tougher over the next few years. The UK is one of the few markets that permits TV alcohol advertising and the feeling is that it won't last much longer.

Even Ireland faces a clampdown. The Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, recently told the Irish Parliament that excessive alcohol consumption cost the country two billion euros a year and he wanted tougher ad restrictions.

Alcohol advertising in France is considered a template for possible Europe-wide legislation. Despite a powerful wine industry and a laissez-faire attitude to alcohol consumption, the French advertising landscape is one of the most restrictive in Europe.

The Loi Evin, which has been in place since 1993, banned alcohol advertising on television and in cinemas. On top of that, ads can refer only to certain clearly delineated elements: the brand's history or geographical origin; its label; the ingredients and the way it is consumed (over ice, for instance, or in a certain type of glass). It is forbidden to show a person drinking alcohol and any hint the drink can improve social status or sexual potency is out of the question.

Alain Roussel, the managing director of BETC Euro RSCG, says: "France is a typical example of what is happening across Europe. It moved rapidly from an extremely unregulated market, in which almost everything was permitted, to a highly restricted one. Basically, you're left with a pack shot. You can try and play around, but we prefer to stick to the spirit and letter of the law. The authorities look at ads with a magnifying glass."

BETC recently won the account for Pastis 51 from the Pernod-Ricard group. A classic French brand, it is made in Marseilles and has strong cultural associations with the south of France.

Roussel explains: "We decided to play with this idea of the south, while also rejuvenating the brand. So we showed the bottle against a variety of backdrops: a beach, a sun-baked rock, the sparking blue water of the Mediterranean." The bottle played the role of a compass needle, pointing south. The campaign used the line: "Ne perdez pas le sud" ("Don't forget which way is south" - a pun on the saying "Ne perdez pas le nord", which basically means: "Don't lose your head").

Sophie Anduze, the creative director behind the campaign, says she thrives on the tough restrictions. "You know exactly what you can't do, so you are challenged to come up with something different within a very narrow margin."

One concept that illustrates what can be achieved with a simple pack shot is TBWA\Paris' campaign for Absolut, which has been running for 23 years. The ads play on the unique shape of the Absolut bottle. "As far as legislation goes, the Absolut campaign is about as inoffensive as you can get," Daniel Gaujac, the vice-president, international at TBWA\Paris, says. "I mean, the bottle isn't even open. But, as a global icon, it's the perfect tool, adaptable to any market."

With time and technology, Absolut's ads have become increasingly abstract.

"The client gives us a lot of leeway. I believe it's because Vin & Sprit (its parent company) is state-owned. It doesn't have to answer to shareholders, so it can be as creative as it likes."

While the campaign falls well within the rules in most markets, Gaujac says TBWA respects local sensitivities. "We liase with governments and health authorities, and we submit ads for approval. Working within the law is one way of ensuring continued freedom."

Gaujac does not feel that the ban on television advertising restricts the brand. "Print is a qualitative medium. A magazine is a good environment for an adult, upmarket product such as Absolut. There is a sense of interactivity - readers can choose whether to linger on your ad, or turn the page. And you are in the middle of editorial - TV advertising is a tunnel, where you can find yourself wedged between a diaper and a deodorant," he says.

TBWA has lately been flirting with the boundaries by asking fashion designers to create clothing based on the shape of the bottle and running the results as print campaigns. But so far, there does not seem to have been a backlash.

Gaujac does not entirely oppose the idea of European harmonisation. "As more countries join the EC, there is a chance that alcohol advertising could become permitted in places in which it is currently banned altogether."

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