Demon Drink - Ads and alcohol
“There is absolutely no doubt that there is an issue with alcohol abuse in this country,” agrees Rob Bruce, head of external affairs at Tennent’s, one of the largest marketing spenders in the country. “What the Government needs to be careful of is that they tackle alcohol abuse and misuse, and not alcohol full stop.”
“There are hundreds, thousands even millions of people who enjoy alcohol in a responsible fashion in this country. You want to make sure that they continue to enjoy alcohol in a responsible fashion and you don’t penalise them.”
Measures as far reaching as a blanket ban, similar to that imposed on cigarettes and creating the same social stigma, are under consideration in both Westminster and Holyrood, and could be announced as early as December. The Health Alcohol Alliance has recently applied public pressure for such a move, in addition to lobbying for increased duties and aggressive labelling. However Kieran Simpson, head of public affairs at the UK’s largest brewer Scottish and Newcastle, believes that this approach is too simplistic, and does not distinguish between alcohol advertising and the social problems associated with alcohol misuse.
“The three simple answers in terms of alcohol problems are we ban advertising, ban sales and increase tax. We would disagree with that approach purely from the point of view that we don’t think it works,” he said.
“We would rather see a targeted approach. What are the actual issues you are trying to address? Is it young people binge drinking, violence, domestic violence, long term abuse leading to long term health problems? Is it drink driving? Is it people drinking at work? There are a whole range of issues around alcohol. They all need addressed, but you have to target each specific problem directly. Having a blanket ban, a blanket tax or a restriction on sales probably wouldn’t address those kinds of issues. You need to get directly to the people who are suffering or causing the harm and the problems using alcohol.”
Whilst supporting any move that would tackle the social issues, Simpson is concerned about the impact any wide ranging measures would have on creativity within the industry, which he believes will diminish consumer choice, and lead to a decline in the sector.
“If a blanket adverting ban comes in, the sector stagnates. The beer sector needs innovation; new brands, new ideas. In a competitive market, the customer wants high quality, new innovation. If the sector stagnates, we go back to the bad old days of 20 or 30 years ago where the customer was poorly treated. We are trying to drive up the quality and move away from the old fashioned Scottish tradition of ‘having a half’ in a quiet pub, to giving the consumer much more value.”
Rob Bruce believes that conflating cigarettes and alcohol is misguided, and any targeting of alcohol advertising needs to recognise that the product is predominantly a social lubricant, rather than a social menace.
“The important thing is, tobacco and alcohol are two very different propositions. You can have a safe and enjoyable pint. You can’t have a safe and enjoyable cigarette. The previous administration recognised that there is a difference between alcohol use and alcohol misuse. The current administration needs to recognise that difference,” he said.
Bruce agrees that the best way to deal with any social issues is to collaborate with brewers and their advertisers, rather than legislating against them, impacting on creativity and jobs. He says the cultural connection between brands and consumers is a tool that can be used constructively.
“T in the park targets the market whose behaviour they are trying to change – the 18-25 year olds who may be binge drinking,” he says.
“Forward thinking governments should be looking to partner with brands like us to communicate with this target audience. If you ban these things, not only are you changing the popular cultural landscape of the country, you are stopping an opportunity to talk directly to these people. What kind of message does it send out internationally to other countries?”
It is a call that was echoed this month by the UK Advertising Association chief Peter Buscombe, who wants to “try and encourage the Government to recognise that the industry can be part of the solution.”
Rob Bruce does not believe there is any justification for restricting marketing of alcohol, believing there is no connection to the marketing of alcohol, and its abuse.
“If anyone can demonstrate hard evidence that sponsorship in particular encourages people to abuse and misuse alcohol, we will rethink our strategy. As it stands at the moment, that evidence doesn’t exist,” he said.
This view is supported by Scottish and Newcastle, who confirmed that an advertising ban introduced in France had no discernible effect on consumption in the country, which continued to generally trend downward before, during and after controlling legislation was introduced.
“Our being a founding partner of T in the Park does not and never will encourage irresponsible drinking. We work with Government to promote responsible drinking and other health initiatives through our events, and that is the sensible way to do these things. Don’t ban them, use them,” Bruce added.
A ban on advertising would not only result in job losses in the sector, he believes, but stifle the social landscape, as music festivals and sporting events, which currently rely on alcohol sponsorship for their existence would simply fold.
“It would lead to job losses without a doubt, and dramatic changes to the popular cultural landscape in Scotland. That includes the influence and impact of some fantastic creative agencies. I don’t think Government have thought through the full ramifications of this,” he says.
It is understood that the award to the 2014 Commonwealth Games to Glasgow has given the Scottish Government temporary pause, as there is an obvious need to attract lucrative sponsorship, which may clash with the current strategy underdevelopment. Many in the industry believe the Government, at UK and devolved level, should leave the subject alone entirely, as the self regulation Code of Practice promoted by the Portman Group is believed to be working successfully. Graeme Atha of Frame believes that the status quo does not need to be upset.
“I think the best form of regulation is self regulation within the industry and the Portman Group and the ASA do a great job to ensure that we all operate within agreed guidelines and to a code of practice,” he said.
“Also there is no political agenda. It is simply doing what is best for all concerned.”
The strategy falls under the joint remit of the Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill and Health Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who were unavailable for comment as The Drum went to press.