Creative Creative Works Politics

The home of whisky might ban alcohol ads ushering in ‘an age of creative prohibition’

By Chris Black

January 30, 2023 | 9 min read

Proposed alcohol ad restrictions in Scotland are an act of economic self-harm argues Chris Black, managing director at creative agency Thirst.


What effect will the legislation have on the alcohol industry? / Dylan de Jonge

For those working in marketing, branding, and advertising in Scotland, the conversation around the government’s proposed blanket ban on the promotion and advertising of alcohol has been unavoidable in recent weeks.

Let me be clear – it will not work. What’s more, it’d be one of the greatest acts of self-harm the government could enact upon the country’s economy.

According to Holyrood’s own figures, Scotland’s distilling industry alone is worth around £4bn annually to the Scottish economy, supporting an estimated workforce of more than 7,000 people across 240+ distilleries and tens of thousands more in connected sectors including tourism, supply chains, and the creative industries worth billions more to the nation.

Stopping alcohol at all cost

The proposals (currently out to public consultation) range from prohibiting alcohol advertising on TV, radio, print media, and in public spaces; and the alcohol sponsorship of sports and events; to an ill-considered ban on marketing ‘gateway’ no and low-alcohol products and the preposterous outlawing of alcohol-branded clothing and even bourbon-flavored barbecue sauce.

What’s more, it includes suggested restrictions on digital marketing, which is questionable that the Scottish government has the power to control.

Firstly, it’s appropriate to acknowledge Scotland’s long-standing challenges related to alcohol abuse. The nation has some of the highest rates of alcohol-related illness and death in Europe. It’s not for me to say how best to address this, but the blame certainly does not lie at the door of marketers, advertisers or designers.

To look at it another way, it’s well-publicized that Scotland also has the highest rate of drug-related deaths on the continent, with consumption rates the highest in the UK. Are these tragic statistics the result of any marketing or advertising campaign?

Scotland’s alcohol industry has long been championed by the Scottish government – and the first minister herself – as a vital cog in the country’s economy; one of the nation’s most celebrated exports with brands recognizable around the world for their provenance and quality.

These one-sided proposals threaten to undermine all of that. Its narrow focus on the negative health impact of alcohol consumption does not consider the alcohol sector’s positive contribution to Scotland or the knock-on effect this proposed move could have on connected industries the country relies on.

Take tourism, for example. Diageo invested millions in the Johnnie Walker Experience, which has helped revitalize Princes Street in Edinburgh; Edrington spent £140m to create the world-class Macallan visitor center on Speyside just five years ago. What will happen to these world-class facilities if producers can’t market or merchandise their brands?

The risk of a collapse

There is a risk these major companies will simply take this money, investment, and employment, out of Scotland and away from distilleries and rural communities they help to thrive – particularly in the Highlands and Islands.

The fantastic ongoing work provided by alcohol brands underpins so much of what the creative industries in Scotland do. It provides the environment in which Scottish innovation, creativity, design, talent, jobs, and opportunities have flourished and helped build a world-class sector that attracts some of the biggest organizations in the world.

These proposals risk the dawn of a new age of creative prohibition, but Scotland’s creatives won’t take to underground design studios in basements and back rooms to covertly practice their professions, they’ll leave the country in their droves. It will result in a talent drain in which generations of prospective Scottish creatives will disappear and likely never return.

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In 2019, the Scottish government published its vision for the creative industries in Scotland, highlighting the importance of food and drink and the valuable role they play in innovating for Scotland’s wider economy in terms of creativity; artistic and economic value; agility, and innovation. The sentiments of this vision seem a long way from the contents of the proposed restrictions on alcohol promotion.

The policy also focused on strengthening the importance of place – noting creative businesses are often ‘embedded in particular areas, and thriving as a result of connections, collaborations, and sharing resources’. The proximity to so many incredible drinks producers and brands is what makes Scotland a unique place to be for so many creative agencies – nowhere else in the UK has these close geographical connections to such a rich seam of high-quality work and relationships – and these proposals would make it difficult for many to justify staying here.

The proposals are based on the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) assertion that restricting alcohol marketing is one of the best ways to tackle alcohol-related abuse. However, a review of restrictions on alcohol marketing in seven European countries – including Finland, France, Ireland and Sweden – published by Public Health Scotland in June last year, did not find any comprehensive evaluations that prove the effectiveness of marketing restrictions on alcohol.

The uncomfortable reality for the Scottish government is that it is possible to have a positive relationship with alcohol and large sections of society do. Our clients tell us consumers are already buying less and paying more for premium products. Low and no alcohol markets are booming.

One of the prime motivations for the government’s proposals is to protect children and young people from exposure to alcohol marketing, yet research by alcohol education charity Drinkaware found those least likely to drink are aged between 16 and 24, a quarter of which are teetotal.

Go for the cause, not the symptoms

Attitudes towards alcohol are changing, and it has little to do with draconian policies such as minimum pricing, which has reduced alcohol sales by just 3%. The Scottish Drugs Forum even warned it has driven people towards cheap street drugs.

Campaigners have called for policies that tackle the root cause of addiction, rather than treating the symptoms – and I agree – but that is not what these proposals achieve.

The wide-ranging damage a blanket ban on the promotion of alcohol in Scotland could do to the country’s economic and employment landscape has not been considered in this proposed policy. Whisky expert Blair Bowman described its contents as “disrespectful to hundreds of years of craft behind Scotland’s unique place at the forefront of global whisky”. I would add to that ignorance of the world-class marketing, campaigns, and creativity that go into supporting that craft and the responsible promotion of Scotland’s celebrated alcohol brands.

As an industry, we are not against change, and we are not against playing a part in addressing one of Scotland’s most pressing social challenges. All we ask is that action – including tighter restrictions on alcohol advertising and marketing – be measured, proportionate, evidence-based and developed in conjunction with all the industries it affects.

The consultation runs until March 9, and I implore everybody in Scotland’s creative industries to make their feelings known before it’s too late.

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