The alcohol industry is subject to some of the tightest advertising regulations in the UK, as governing bodies seek to reduce the possibility of alcohol brands targeting and appealing to young people. For marketers these comprehensive rules present a unique challenge when it comes to how, where and when they can promote their products, with Britain's Beer Alliance’s There’s a Beer for That campaign, warning “there are eyes and ears” waiting for brands to trip up.
Currently in the UK there is a mix of regulatory bodies looking over the alcohol industry including the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), Ofcom and drinks industry funded body, the Portman Group, which regulates marketing including naming, packaging and promotion of alcoholic drinks.
While, quite rightly, the codes are there to protect both young people and society as a whole, such restrictions mean that advertisers are often criticised by the public and forced to come up with creative ways of promoting their products.
“There are eyes and ears out there waiting for you do to something wrong,” said David Cunningham programme director at There's a Beer for That, at The Drum’s Advertising Week Europe fringe event last week. “I’m not saying that as a negative, I’m saying that as a positive but as a marketers whenever you are putting something out of the door, whether it be broadcast or social you have to be prepared for that to be complained about, or be looked at by the anti-alcohol brigade, mothers against drunk driving etc and rightly so.”
“I’m a big fan of the code. Yes, it makes life a bit more challenging for marketers but ultimately you get to a better place anyway because it stops you doing lazy advertising [like] here’s my product it transforms you from a dull person to a sexy person, that is lazy advertising.”
The challenge for advertising regulators
Interestingly, it’s not just brands that are struggling to keep up with regulation. The regulators themselves are increasingly having to update their own rules in the face of technological advances such as social media. The rules around User Generated Content (UGC) and when that becomes marketing is one area in particular that marketers need to be aware of, said Matt Wilson, press officer at ASA.
“The engagement point is really interesting because the moment you start engaging with your consumers it can become advertising under our rules,” he said. “So when you start adopting UGC it becomes marketing under the purposes of the code and then that is when we start paying attention. There is nothing wrong with that conversation, it is perfectly legitimate to reach out, but when you start encouraging people to send photos of themselves consuming a beverage or exciting ways they are enjoying that product then the alcohol rules can start biting, and it becomes marketing not UGC and that is something marketers have to be aware of.”
From a Portman perspective, the the trade body struggles with the ‘under 25 rle’, which doesn’t allow alcohol brands to use images of people who are, or appear to be, under the age of 25. “We have struggled for years [with that rule] and have looked in to reviewing it, but as soon as you try to ‘water down’ a rule you have the lobbyists on your back. However, we are looking at the social space where you are able to target a lot better compared to broadcast advertising and perhaps the rules could be a bit more relaxed there,” said Kay Perry, programme and regulatory affairs director.
Is regulation helping the alcohol industry?
Overall, industry's self-regulation and co-regulation seems to be paying off. Last year, the ASA received 200 complaints about alcohol adverts resulting in just eight of those being banned. To put that in a wider context, as a whole the ASA received 37,000 complaints against 20,000 adverts.
But one area that could threaten the reputation and to an extent the current freedom of the alcohol industry when compared to other industries is the growing craft beer sector.
“I’m a fan of the smaller operators bubbling up and creating excitement in the industry, but there is a slight risk, in fact more than a slight risk there for the industry,” added Cunningham. “A lot of the smaller breweries are a little bit edgier and under the radar, and that can also go for big suppliers in their use of social media. If you go online there is code breaking going on out there and as an industry we have to be very careful about that.”
He said that both marketers and agencies need to be aware of the rules around packaging and how they position their brands. “You have to take a step back and think is it clever to break rules and be edgy? Yes, we know that has an appeal to a certain audience but you have to look at the bigger picture and think is that is that good for society and good for the industry as a whole and the online area is the biggest area of risk for the industry right now.
“You look at the cigarette world, which has virtually no ability to market at all now, so if we are not careful and not adhering to those rules then we will go that way and it’s not a good thing for the industry or consumers either.”