Hi-Spirits said it has suspended activity on the social media pages of its Fireball brand to review its approach after breaching the Advertising Standards Authority code for the fifth time this year.

A fan of Fireball posted a comment on its Facebook page that implied “alcohol was a key component of the success of social events”.

The ASA ordered that the ad must not appear again and warned Hi-Spirits to ensure its future advertising did not encourage excessive drinking.

Hi-Spirits chairman Jeremy Hill recently told OLN current rules governing the drinks industry’s use of social media may not be fit for purpose.

Following the latest ruling, he said: “We have been working closely with the ASA to ensure that all our advertising and marketing is compliant with the code, and we fully acknowledge our responsibility to market our products responsibly.

“The material which this complaint relates to appeared in a customer-generated blog which was posted some months ago, and which we had removed some time before we received notification of the complaint from the ASA.

“It clearly puts us in a difficult position when the ASA is willing to consider complaints about social media posts which we have already removed and which cannot be accessed by the public.

“Prior to the latest ASA ruling we had already taken the decision that, for the time being, we would suspend all social media activity for Fireball, including Facebook, Twitter and blogs, based on the complaints already upheld relating to user-generated material.

“Given the ASA’s remit to consider social media, which includes user-generated content under the same rules as static advertising, we have been considering very carefully how Fireball can use social media without risking contravening the ASA code, before we resume. We do not believe Fireball is the only brand facing this challenge and we would suggest that there needs to be a debate between the drinks industry and advertising regulators to consider the issues this raises.”     

In the incident in question, the Facebook fan created a post called “What UCAS Doesn’t Tell Freshers” and wrote: “Fireball makes friends. I take it to every student affair I attend and it’s always the talk of the party. The guests love you because you’ve brought a bottle and it’s thoroughly entertaining to watch the macho boys down it like it’s water, only to realise that when we say ‘hot as hell’, we mean it!”

Alcohol Concern’s Youth Alcohol Advertising Council, which has complained to the ASA about Hi-Spirits ahead of its previous four breaches this year, reported the post.

The ASA agreed it had breached rules on responsible alcohol advertising.

But it gave Hi-Spirits credit for already having taken the post down when it contacted the supplier, and for constantly collaborating with the authority to ensure it promoted responsible drinking.

It said: “Hi-Spirits said they were committed to promoting responsible consumption of their products and had suspended activity on their social media pages until they could review their current approach.”

Last week Hill told OLN: “There should be a wider discussion because I am not sure whether the current regulations are totally compatible with social media. It’s a big new world out there and conventional wisdom is being applied to social media, but we need to be careful that we are not stepping over the line and stopping people’s freedom of expression.”

Hi-Spirits said it was not aware before April 2013 that the code covered posts made by fans of its brands and not just posts from the supplier itself.

Since then it said it has thrown plenty of additional resources at monitoring its pages to ensure user generated content does not breach the code, and that “while that was a large task, they made it a priority and sought to complete an audit of their website and social media pages as soon as possible”. 

Hi-Spirits said it was “regrettable” that this post about Fresher’s Week had briefly slipped through, but reiterated the fact that it had already taken the post down by the time the ASA got in touch.

Hill said: “The partiality has to be considered too. For instance, if a company had a page with 1 million fans, it would have to dedicate considerable resources to trawling through user comments. It would be a logistical nightmare even for the biggest companies, which means a smaller company would just be forced to close theirs down or face the continual backlash.”

The ASA is in the second year of an extended remit that sees it police social media and online channels, and it has conducted a year-long review of whether it needs to tighten its rules, which it is currently consulting on.