The Scots are, of course, internationally renowned for enjoying a dram or two. It’s an infamously intertwined aspect of the country’s social culture, so much so that it is now being targeted by the Scottish Executive in a bid to curb what is now a very real problem within our society through legislation and, more recently, a TV campaign challenging the social habit of buying rounds.
But is alcohol and, more specifically, alcohol promotion the route of all evil?
According to Alcohol Focus Scotland, over £200 million is spent on alcohol advertising by drinks companies each year in the UK, a big part of this is in sponsorship and, in particular music festivals.
The Portman Group, set up by the drinks industry’s top producers, self-regulates the naming, packaging and promotion of alcoholic drinks while the Advertising Standards Authority is responsible for newspaper, magazine, billboard, internet, radio and TV adverts.
Among other, legal, restrictions, alcoholic marketing is prohibited from directly appealing to under 18s, promoting sexual or social enhancement or suggesting that it can overcome boredom and loneliness.
Earlier this month, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs released a report in which it admitted that “compared with tobacco, there has been less research into the impact of alcohol marketing strategies” but the report still maintains that alcohol advertising encourages underage drinking as the companies promote their product through “an attractive image of youthful vigour and carefree pleasure through its advertising themes and sponsorship of sport.”
The report goes onto recommend that “a much stricter code for alcohol advertising (including via the internet) and sponsorship should be established.”
The Scottish Executive attempted to draft legislation about sponsorship when it drafted its alcohol licensing reform, but realised that it didn’t come under alcohol licensing. So was it ever likely to say anything else though?
A spokesperson for the Advertising Standards Authority says quite simply: “The ASA gets very few complaints about alcohol advertising but we will follow anything that does get said by the government.”
The ASA continues to say that its regulations on alcohol advertising are already very tough and have been reviewed and strengthened as recently as 2004.
Tennent’s Lager, whilst already a fabric brand embedded in the psyche of the nation, is one of Scotland’s most actively promoted alcohol brands through both advertising and sponsorship. Be it involvement in the promotion of football or the launch and continued success of one of Scotland, and the UK’s, biggest music festivals, T in the Park, Tennents supports a number of Scottish cultural events. So how does it feel about the prospect of being forced to withdraw its sponsorship. “Scotland and the UK is lucky enough to enjoy a huge amount of cultural activity which wouldn’t otherwise happen if drinks companies didn’t provide funding and support,” says a spokesperson for Tennent’s. “This seems to be a typical reaction from an advisory group more interested in grabbing headlines than actually looking at the real and complex issues behind alcohol misuse.
“We are proud to play an active part in creating and supporting events which enhance people’s lives, just like alcohol can, and does do when used in the proper way by the majority of people.
“The more forward-thinking advisors in government know that such a ban would make little difference, and instead believe that our sponsorships should be used to try and educate people about the responsible use of alcohol. Government should see our events as an opportunity to speak to people in an appropriate and relevant way. We already use our major events like T in the Park in this way, and it does work”
David Poley, director of policy and good practice at The Portman Group, disagrees with the report, stating that he felt that advertising restrictions on alcoholic products were stringent enough already, saying: “The advertising marketing rules have only recently been tightened and they work well in ensuring that advertising is responsible and in respect of other forms of marketing, including sponsorship which this report mentions, that is covered by the Portman Group’s code of practice. In short, we think our code is adequate in ensuring that sponsorship is carried out in a responsible way.”
Poley continues: “I’m not too sure that there is much that they allude to in the report to support their recommendations. I don’t think at the moment that there is any indication that the government is going to clamp down on drinks marketing but we are about to embark on a review on our code of practice which will involve an open consultation, and I guess this will be a good opportunity to see if any tightening is needed.”
However, Gary Wise, head of strategy at Feather Brooksbank feels that any new restrictions would have a huge impact on the marketplace. “It would have a big impact, not just looking at TV sponsorships, or sports sponsorship, but everything right down to T in the Park, which is a massive cultural event now in Scotland. If that was seen as a sponsorship that had to be restricted then that would have a big impact for Tennent's as that’s been one of the big things that has led its brand rejuvenation.
“For a lot of advertisers, not just in Scotland, sponsorship is being used more commonly to get a regular communication going with their audiences. Certainly we’ve been looking at it a lot more and we’ve had more advertisers using it than in the past. Clients are spending time and money building up a relationship with consumers through sponsorship - now there’s the possibility that it could be restricted. That is, perhaps, where problems could arise.”