Despite spending more than £7 million pounds on advertising and marketing, the Scottish Executive’s campaigns are not going to change people’s habits, a leading expert recently told the national press, adding that adverts which set out to encourage people to drink less are “a waste of public money”.
Speaking ahead of an international conference on young people and alcohol abuse, Professor Martin Plant, the director of the Alcohol & Health Research Trust at the University of the West of England in Bristol has been quoted as saying: “Mass media campaigns and the kind of stuff we are getting at the moment are a complete waste of public money and do not discourage heavy drinking.”
Unfortunately, the claims coincide with the launch of yet another socially responsible advertising push by the Scottish Executive, this time to dissuade people from binge drinking. But is Professor Plant right?
Jack Cummins, a specialist licensing lawyer who has worked with the Scottish Executive on legislative reform on alcohol, certainly thinks so. “Quite frankly, it’s a total waste of money,” he said. “You can educate people but you won’t change their habits.
“I very much doubt whether advertising will change people’s drinking habits. If people have a tendency to drink too much, advertising is unlikely to make them say, ‘Oh, I’d better not be doing that.’ You can tell people that sort of information till you’re blue in the face, but it won’t change the drinking culture and it won’t have much impact on it.”
The Exec isn’t without its supporters though. David Poley, chief executive of The Portman Group, which promotes responsible drinking, is very much in favour of using advertising in the battle against alcohol addiction and is very much behind the new Executive campaign.
“An advertising campaign on its own isn’t necessarily going to achieve much,” he said. “But if you have an advertising campaign in conjunction with a whole host of other factors – such as including education in schools, getting parents to set a good example for their children, getting retailers retailing responsibly and getting police effectively enforcing the law against drunkenness – then you can turn things about. I challenge anyone to say that the drink-drive campaigns that took place over the 1980s and ’90s were a waste of time when we saw the drink-drive numbers tumble dramatically during that period.
“I don’t think you can just do an advertising campaign and that’s it. There are other things you need to do to tackle the problems, but an advertising campaign certainly has a role to play in tackling the problem.
“I wouldn’t be so dismissive of advertising as being a waste of time in terms of changing behaviour. Very often people say, ‘We should be banning alcohol advertising because it’s responsible for encouraging irresponsible behaviour’. So on the one hand, it seems incredibly powerful in terms of persuading people to drink too much, but it then seems very strange to argue that it can’t be used in a positive way.”
The Executive has responded to criticism by saying that showing people the damage excessive drinking can do will help stop the problem. A spokeswoman said: “The impact of any campaign which is focused on changing behaviours and attitudes will only be felt in the long term. Our ‘Alcohol. Don’t Push It’ campaign asks Scots to take greater individual responsibility for their drinking and highlights the role peer pressure plays in encouraging harmful drinking by others. We know from our research that showing the consequences of excessive drinking is more likely to encourage people to re-assess their behaviour.
“The figures on alcohol-related health and social harm in Scotland speak for themselves. The campaign – one part of an integrated programme of action on alcohol – has an important role in helping to tackle this.”
Chris Wallace, managing director of Barkers, the agency behind several Scottish Executive campaigns, including ‘Alcohol. Don’t Push It’, believes the advert’s role to effectively inform and evoke a response from its audience is an important element of the battle against Scotland’s drinking culture. However, he is under no illusions that it will turn the tide alone.
“Is advertising the best way? No, it’s one of the ways,” he said. “We’re a communications agency and we make a living out of this, but we don’t delude ourselves that advertising on its own or advertising and PR is going to stop it. To combat heavy drinking is to combat attitudes to drink, and common sense tells you that will require a combination of factors.
“No individual takes his world view from advertising on any subject, so why would this be any different? But what advertising can do, and what evidence suggests it can do, is make people re-evaluate and think about drinking in a different way, and the kind of thing we’re looking at is the acceptance and tolerance of behaviour that is damaging to individuals and society.”