Every Wednesday, the Advertising Standards Authority releases a bulletin detailing complaints about breaches of its code of practice. One recent batch included false claims about amounts received in PPI agency cases, badly-worded nutrition information about a breakfast cereal and misleading details about the number of attendees at a festival that hadn’t happened yet.

Alcohol ads were conspicuous by their absence – an occurrence which is becoming increasingly regular.

The ASA’s latest annual report shows 118 complaints were made against 90 alcohol ads in 2015. Critics of the industry might point out that, at around two a week, it’s too many. But the figure was well down on the previous year when 187 complaints were brought against 140 ads – a drop of 37% in the number of complaints about 36% fewer ads.

What’s more, the figures are clearly not a blip. In 2012, the ASA received 448 complaints – almost four times the 2015 figure. In 2013 this dropped to 378.

To give this some context, the overall number of complaints resolved by the ASA dropped too in 2015, but only by 19%, and the finance and holidays sectors saw complaints soar by almost 80% each.

What’s not yet clear is the cause of the decline. Are advertisers just getting better at complying with the alcohol code? Has Alcohol Concern backed off from a long-term strategy to bring what it sees as transgressive ads to the ASA’s attention? Or is there just less advertising as drinks brands pour more money into events and experiences?

Even the ASA says it’s “very hard to pinpoint the reasons”, though media and public affairs assistant Ella Cahoon told OLN that education of advertisers had played a part.

“We have run numerous seminars for breweries and alcohol retailers, teaching them about the advertising rules and how best to comply. Last year we also launched an online eLearning module for the sector.”

Hi-Spirits marketing director Amanda Watkins thinks a culture of education and “open and honest consultation” among regulators has contributed to the drop. She believes it’s also a sign that marketing and advertising professionals are starting to get their heads around the rules on digital media in addition to more traditional forms of advertising.

“There are marketers who have grown up with social media guidelines,” she says. “They treat them as part and parcel of advertising and promoting brands rather than a hindrance.”

Another possibility is that people are using social media to challenge advertisers directly – a factor, says the ASA, in the overall decline in complaints across all sectors. 

A shift in budgets from above-the-line to one-to-one engagement through events or at point of purchase is also having an impact.

“When you are immersing consumers in your world, it is much easier to be responsible and ensure you don’t contravene any guidelines,” says Watkins. “It is sometimes harder to do this in a traditional 20-second TV ad or in consumer print advertising, as not only can messages be misinterpreted, but there is far less control over the age and demographic of your audience.”

She also suggests that messages around excessive consumption don’t resonate as much with consumers.

“Consumers are more health conscious and value quality over quantity, and manufacturers and distributors have evolved their communications to leverage this trend,” she says. “There are far less excessive drinking nuances in this type of alcohol advertising. Marketers want to do the right thing, but consumers really aren’t as interested in that approach.”

The drop in alcohol ads is clearly good news for an industry that has to be increasingly seen as squeaky clean on social responsibility issues.

This has been a thorny area for drinks marketers for decades, with lobbyists regularly calling for tougher constraints on ads, or for them to be banned altogether.

Complaints about alcohol ads tend to be about advertising code matters in relation to modes and contexts of consumption, or the potential appeal to young people, whereas seven out of 10 complaints to the ASA about all types of advertising are about misleading claims.

Historically, Alcohol Concern has been responsible for a large number of complaints – it’s striking that 97% of complaints about all forms of advertising come from members of the public.

But, of the 15 bulletin decisions about alcohol published in 2015, eight were a result of complaints from Alcohol Concern or the Youth Alcohol Advertising Council. Three cases were brought by the ASA itself as a result of Ofcom data on broadcast schedules, leaving very few the result solely of complaints by the public. 

Alcohol Concern’s main campaign goals include restricting alcohol advertising to factual information such as where drinks come from, and how and of what they are made. It wants to see the removal of “lifestyle images of drinkers, characters, celebrities and drinking atmospheres”, which it says would reduce the appeal of ads to younger people.

The organisation continues to have some success, with victories in 2015 including a complaint against an ad for Strongbow that appeared on Youtube and a Bulmers promotion with Converse trainers.

Alcohol Concern isn’t convinced the drop in complaints is an indication that the industry is cleaning up its act. Director of campaigns Tom Smith says: “The drop is likely to reflect the move from advertisers investing in TV toward digital platforms. 

“We regularly see content uploaded/posted that would never have been broadcast because it clearly breaks the codes in the knowledge that complaints are not going to be made by the very targeted audience that will see it. 

“Younger people – the primary audiences of online alcohol advertising – are far less likely to complain about advertising than older people. There is a clear trend [towards] more inappropriate alcohol advertising, not less – it’s just increasingly online and hidden from more general view.”