Packing the Defence

Triumphant sports people bouncing up and down in front of hoardings with the names of beer brands on them could soon be a thing of the past.

So too could spirit-branded tents masquerading as cocktail bars-cum-nightclubs at music festivals. Even staid, middle-aged affairs such as jazz and literary festivals could find themselves light of a benevolent drinks sponsor or two if Alcohol Concern gets its way.

A ban on alcohol sponsorship of sport, music and cultural events was the headline- grabber in a package of proposals contained in a report published by the organisation this month. Effectively, it would mean an outright ban on sponsorship – it’s hard to imagine an event that doesn’t fall into one of those categories having any appeal for brand managers.

The report was called Stick to the Facts, referencing another of its suggestions – that advertising should be restricted to the product’s strength, origin, composition and means of production. It’s a strange call given that – as a result of anti-alcohol lobbying – current codes of practice already prohibit drinks brands from emphasising strength.

Other measures called for by Alcohol Concern include the replacement of self-regulation through the Portman Group and the Advertising Standards Authority with statutory controls, and the introduction of fines for non-compliance rather than a retrospective slap on the wrists.

There are elements that have merit. The ASA frequently seems to issue dictates to brands not to use an ad again, even though the campaign has already run its course. This goes for ads across the board, though, not just for alcohol, and suggests that the pre-publication approval stage is what actually needs toughening up.

Drinks companies have been measured – almost reticent – in their response, preferring to leave comment to the wider advertising industry, mindful of becoming involved in a head-to-head spat with Alcohol Concern.

But the alcohol industry should be wary of being too passive in its reaction. There’s more at stake than just tougher advertising restrictions. Though it seems longer, it’s only 10 years since tobacco advertising was banned completely in the UK and, since then, that sector has seen the squeeze put on further with bigger health warnings, then graphic ones, a ban on merchandising and, possibly still to come, plain packaging.

A large section of the report focuses on what Alcohol Concern sees as deficiencies in the current process of self-regulation, where the ASA takes complaints from members of the public, puts them through a vetting process and orders removal of ads which its says contravene its codes of practice.

Alcohol Concern uses the Youth Alcohol Advertising Council, a group of 16 to 19-year-olds which it co-ordinates, to scour ads and make a case for a complaint.

Prima facie, there’s some logic in its thinking that young people will have a better idea of whether advertising appeals to young people than a 50-year-old advertising executive.

However, you could also argue that a few young people who are sufficiently motivated in some way by the issue to get involved in the first place might not be representative of young people as a universal constituency. The council typically has between nine and 12 people taking part.

The report argues that, because the ASA doesn’t find in the YAAC’s favour on enough occasions – just three times on 13 com- plaints made in the last two years – then self-regulation isn’t working, which seems to be a big leap in logic.

The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers has been sticking up for the drinks industry, calling Alcohol Concern “silly” after publication of the report.

Director of public affairs Ian Twinn said the report was “a seriously flawed work of fiction”.

He added: “It has been argued by anti-ad lobbyists that the massive investment made by companies in promoting their brands is evidence in and of itself that it influences children. This is silly. Why would advertisers want to waste money marketing to a demographic which can’t legally buy their product? What the advertisers are doing is trying to influence adults, not young people, to drink their brand, and they do this sensibly and responsibly.”

The amount spent on promoting alcohol is put at £800 million in Stick To The Facts, a report which, ironically, seems to trade as much on conjecture and assertion as facts.

In a March issue of OLN, drinks writer Phil Mellows forensically examined how organisations such as Alcohol Concern manipulate statistics to suit their own ends.

In light of that, the £800 million figure is worthy of closer examination. A footnote shows this relates to a Cabinet Office report from 2003, calling into question its relevance.

The report says this is “a figure likely to have increased in the period since it was calculated”. On the face of it, that sounds sensible, until you consider that the world has since undergone a global economic crisis, one of the main results of which for the media industry was a slump in advertising revenue.

Advertising Association figures showed that British advertisers as a whole spent less in 2010 than they did four years earlier, though revenue has recovered since. Spend dropped by 13% in a single year during 2009.

So, while it is possible that alcohol promotional spend has increased over the past decade, without all the facts is it right for Alcohol Concern to say that it’s “likely”?

It’s the proposed sponsorship ban that could potentially have the biggest impact on the alcohol industry. It would wipe out a massive plank of alcohol marketing in one fell swoop.

Alcohol Concern wants to see the UK come closer to the French model, where a sponsorship ban already means the Heineken Cup in rugby union is known as the H Cup.

Heineken spokesman David Jones said: “There is no evidence that our sponsorship encourages alcohol misuse.

“Indeed, the presentation, serving and availability at alcohol-sponsored events is likely to be subject to a far higher level of care than would otherwise be taken.

“Sponsorship also provides us with an important platform to encourage responsible drinking – a fact often acknowledged by the event organisers.

The Alcohol Concern report offers little evidence about how or to what extent young people are influenced by sponsorships, beyond asserting that they are because it’s difficult to prevent young people being exposed to them.

Sport is singled out because it “sends contradictory messages about the health benefits of participation”. You might ask, does Stowford Press sponsoring test cricket persuade watching adults to have a refreshing glass of cider while they’re watching the game or does it say “drink cider and you’ll be as fit as Alastair Cook or Jimmy Anderson”? Sometimes it’s good when in Alcohol Concern Land to remind yourself that people, generally, are not stupid.

Of course, some people are young and impressionable even if they’re not stupid, but figures from the England & Wales Cricket Board show that the average age of a ticket buyer for an international cricket match in the UK is 46, and that almost two-thirds are aged between 25 and 50.

Sometimes the facts can get in the way of a good assertion.

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