In the days when the toucan was the face of Guinness, few would have envisaged a time coming where alcohol adverts stopped pushing the product and started telling consumers not to drink too much. However, as binge-drinkers take the place of smokers in the public agenda, the crackdown on alcohol advertising is starting to bite.
Earlier this month, Famous Grouse dropped its animation grouse from its rugby sponsorship branding, a move which although it is going to keep the cartoon for its Xmas TV campaign, hints that the grouse is not long for this world. The comic, Peter Kaye, is also rumoured to be sidelined for the John Smith’s campaign as his popularity is such with young people that it’s felt he would flout the ban on celebrities in alcohol ads.
Richard Marsham, director of account management at The Leith Agency believes the actions of a few are now impacting on the rest of the industry. “I think the vast majority of advertisers have been responsible, but I think there have been a few campaigns that have made it worse for everyone,” he says. “I would say it was for the smaller brands, but there are a couple of ads for the big drinks brands where they’re throwing alcohol around, which is just irresponsible.”
However, in some cases it’s not the marketing department that’s to blame, but the ad agency. Stiffy’s Shots, the Kirkcaldy-based drinks company, ran into trouble last year with The Portman Group for some risquÃ© ads. Although the ads themselves weren’t actually outrageous when it came to images, the group, which is an independent advisory group funded by the drinks industry, rapped the company’s knuckles for a strapline ‘Have you had a Stiffy tonight?’. Graeme Coull, a director of the company, blames the agency that created the campaign. “A lot of the agencies don’t fully understand the rules of advertising alcohol,” he says. “Any alcohol company that’s looking to use an agency should make sure they know the rules. You expect them to know, but unless you ask the question you can’t be sure.”
Stiffy’s has just appointed nation1 to work on its new lager brand, and the agency quickly realised the restrictions. “On the surface Stiffy’s presented nation1 with an endless array of creative opportunities for obvious reasons,” says Andrew Grant, nation1’s managing director. “However as we learnt more about the new regulations, got to know the client/brand better and started to take advice from the Portman and our client, we soon found out that this was going to be a difficult brief to crack. Initial ideas involved creating a fictitious character called Stiffy and the advertising campaign would follow his millionaire playboy antics; from poolside romps to three in a bed private jet action.”
However, nation1 quickly realised that was not really a potential campaign, certainly under the new regulations. “I said to Andrew, under no circumstances can you relate the products to sex and young people,” says Coull. “He agreed immediately saying there were so many other ways to advertise to people. I think the regulations treat everyone as if they’re stupid. It’s based on underage drinking and binge-drinking. There are pockets in the UK that have problems with that kind of thing, but I don’t see what alcohol companies have to do with underage-drinking. Is it any different to when you drank or when your parents drank? People aren’t stupid, they’re curious.”
Tim Seager, UK marketing director for Scottish & Newcastle agrees the majority shouldn’t be punished for the few. “You would be mad not to recognise that there is a serious, serious amount of interest in binge-drinking,” he says. “What are we trying to do? We’re trying to educate people to understand, ‘what is responsible drinking?’ All of our brands now carry a responsible drinking message and the number of units in that drink. That’s the bare minimum. We should let people then chose how they want to behave, and give them the information to do that. This is more of a personal answer. I don’t know what sort of world everyone wants to live in, but the majority of alcohol is drunk responsibly. I could bamboozle you with statistics, but I would think that I had failed in life if I condoned a system that stopped most people doing something properly because an irresponsible few abuse it. That’s a life choice. I think if you look at some of the media hysteria when you try to encroach on individual freedom, I don’t think the answer is trying to stop the majority of people behaving sensibly, there have been examples of excesses that have gotten out of hand. Some of the deals that have been offered historically, ‘drink all you can for a silly amount of money’, that was irresponsible. It wasn’t smart in an industry where self-regulation is something we’re still trying to achieve.”
Although Tennent’s Lager was the first company to promote responsible drinking when it put units and responsible drinking messages on its packaging, Carling, owned by brewing giant Coors Brewers, went one step further in 2003, when it created a responsible drinking campaign featuring Celtic manager Martin O’Neill and Rangers manager Alex McLeish. The Leith Agency – which created the campaign – is just about to launch a radio campaign featuring McLeish and new Celtic boss, Gordon Strachan. “The campaign was ground-breaking at the time,” says Marsham. “We had to explain it to the BACC to get round the ban on sports stars. We had to convince them we were using them [McLeish and O’Neill] in a responsible way. They saw Scotland as an opportunity for a responsible drinking message and the sponsorship of the Old Firm was a great opportunity as there was a feeling that binge-drinking was linked to the football.”
Rob Bruce, head of PR UK and Ireland for Tennent’s Lager, admits the new guidelines could impact on certain elements of the company’s campaigns. “We wouldn’t be able to run the ‘pintlings’ campaign again from a few years ago,” he says. “Not that we would want to, but it would be nice to be able to re-visit it. I think we’re living in a very different world than 5 years ago. We have to be responsible but I think it should be voluntary rather than legislative. I think it does affect what we do with marketing, but rather than look on it as being limiting, we’d rather look at it as being challenging for our agency. From our point of view, as a big national brand there will always be a place for advertising, but it’s important that you are as creative with your marketing budget as possible and all events have a massive role to play.”
Seager admits that as companies they have financial obligations, but also moral choices.
“We do have a responsibility as Britain’s leading brewer to stand up and put our case forward,” says Seager. “I’m here to improve the shareholder’s value in the company. But one of the ways I have to do that – as a human being – is to recognise that there is a serious company responsibility in the nature of the business that we’re in, in relation to responsible drinking. Anyone who doesn’t recognise that probably shouldn’t be in the industry.”
what you can and can’t do
The new rules now in place would outlaw many of the drinks industry’s most iconic advertising campaigns. Guinness’s campaign using the line ‘Guinness is good for you’ falls foul of the Advertising Standards Authority as no advertising can imply that alcohol has any health benefits.
Bacardi’s old ad featuring celebrity footballer Vinnie Jones would flout a rule saying advertisements must not be likely to appeal strongly to people under 18, in particular by reflecting or being associated with youth culture. Personalities that are likely to appeal to young people should be avoided, such as pop stars, sportsmen and sportswomen. Childish behaviour is frowned upon, as is ‘mocking or outwitting authority’ and practical jokes.
The suggestion that cartoons, rhymes and animation are to be avoided prompted speculation that Famous Grouse, which recently announced it was dropping the cartoon grouse character for its rugby sponsorship, was reacting to the new rules. However, the character remains in its Christmas campaign.
One of the most challenging elements of the new guidelines is the emphasis placed on ‘responsible drinking’. Advertising should not link alcohol with daring, toughness, aggression or anti-social behaviour, nor should it suggest alcohol can help an individual’s popularity or confidence. The “daring” element of the rule is designed to prevent associating alcohol with feats that would be considered dangerous, foolish or reckless or likely to encourage irresponsible or anti-social behaviour.
Attitudes, behaviour or atmospheres that are threatening or potentially violent are prohibited as is the use of weapons or objects as weapons.
What constitutes anti-social behaviour, especially among the young, can be the subject of wide interpretation but examples are given: ‘non-playful rudeness’, ‘excessive boisterousness’ and ‘behaviour not normally associated with sobriety’.
Ads must also not link alcohol with sexual activity or sexual success or imply that alcohol can enhance attractiveness. Romance is allowed, though only mild flirtation between couples who are obviously over 25 in both appearance and behaviour
Advertisements must not suggest that sexual activity or seduction has taken place or might take place, so Baileys – which has long used its ‘kiss’ style of advertising - would probably be restricted in this category.
Drinking games are ruled out, as is pub crawls and even the depiction of people buying rounds and using the term ‘round’.
‘Reckless dispensing of alcohol’ is also banned. While that doesn’t rule out the Champagne-popping scene, if people in the scene get soaked in Champagne, that will be frowned upon.