Can Buckfast go up market?This is a brand that doesn’t advertise, doesn’t promote itself in any way, and yet has incredibly high consumer awareness. And according to Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson, it is more lethal than any other alcohol brand on the market. Why else would she call on off-licences to ban it completely? What is this unfortunate brand? Well, I’m sure you have all already guessed: Buckfast Tonic Wine.
Since Ms Jamieson’s comments Buckfast has made headline news, journalists have been dispatched to East Ayrshire, feature writers have written about their favourite tipple – yes Buckfast – and across the land it is the talk of the steamie.
It ought to be a classic case of PR crisis management. And if it were any other brand probably it would be.
But it’s not the first time that a politician has called for a Buckfast ban – Helen Liddell, the former Scottish Secretary, did exactly that a number of years ago. The result: sales of Buckfast increased. And no doubt the same will happen now, although with 70 per cent of all Buckfast sales in Scotland how much more can it sell?
So why is Ms Jamieson going down the same misguided route as Helen Liddell? It is the Scottish Executive that is now practicing ‘damage limitation’ public relations, but alas too late. It already appears to have spectacularly misfired. Instead of people sympathising, and applauding the MSP for her stance, the media have taken the opposite view.
Not a single newspaper agrees with Ms Jamieson’s comments, and what could have been a PR disaster for the Benedictine monks of Buckfast Abbey, who make the brew, has actually been a PR coup. Said Gillian Bowditch, in The Scotsman, “Buckfast-ban is Babycham politics”, while Stephen Phelan, in The Sunday Times, commented, “I love Buckfast without shame or equivocation. I have nothing but contempt for those who would brand it a poison.”
Sweet words indeed. But then Buckfast is a sweet drink, I should know because I tried it myself a few years ago as a long drink with ice and tonic. And I wrote, at the time, that the PR people behind Buckfast were selling it short – they should be doing what all the other drinks companies are doing and marketing it as a mixer. The companies PR man, was on the case immediately and delivered some bottles to the office, we then of course did a tasting exercise. Not one of the young people in the office had ever tried it. Instead they had done their underage drinking on strong white cider.
Cathy Jamieson is misguided if she thinks by banning Buckfast the anti-social problems of underage drinking will disappear. There is a much bigger issue here, and that is pricing and availability.
At the end of the day the law says that you cannot buy alcohol from licensed premises under the age of 18, not only that licensees can’t sell it to anyone under 18. So why is that not being enforced?
Buckfast, at almost a fiver a bottle, is nearly one pound more expensive than its nearest competitor, while you can buy two litres of strong cider for £1.99 in just about any supermarket in the country. MD 20/20 is another popular drink with the youth market. Buckfast is popular because it is strong – it has an ABV of 15 per cent, while cider has an ABV of 7.5 per cent and above, while MD 20/20 has an ABV of 13 per cent. Buckfast is also popular because it is now an urban legend. And that is more to do with the fact that youngsters like to be rebellious, and if influential adults are constantly holding up the brand as an example of something that ought not to be drunk, what are youngsters going to do? What would you have done? It’s not rocket science – rocket fuel perhaps.
Buckfast doesn’t need crisis PR, but I certainly think the alcohol industry does. Despite promoting the need to ‘drink responsibly’, drinks companies are getting the blame for alcohol abuse. Yet they, in fact, have little control over what price their products are sold at in off-licences and supermarkets, and they certainly don’t have any control over the age of people to which it is sold. That is the job of the licensee, and ultimately it is the job of the police to ensure the law is not being broken. Cathy Jamieson, as Justice Minister, ought to know this. What drinks companies do have is control over how they promote their own products. Perhaps we could see the voluntary code, which saw spirit companies staying away from TV advertising, being reinstated.
The alcohol debate is not going away, but at the end of this month we ought to see evidence of how the Scottish Executive plans to handle the underage and binge drinking issues when it reveals its proposed new licensing bill. The rumour is that there will be a ‘no proof no sale’ clause, but then again, it will have to be policed.
But now, I’m off home for my Buckfast and tonic.