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Should alcohol ads face tighter rules?

The drinks industry is fighting its corner in the face of World Health Organisation calls for tighter regulations on alcohol advertising.

Dropping connections: concerns about cross-border advertising

*This feature was first published in the August issue of The Spirits Business magazine.

Alcohol marketing is already highly regulated around the world, but many health groups – including the World Health Organisation (WHO) – have called for alcohol advertising bans and greater restrictions to be introduced, such as those that are in place in France under the Loi Évin law.

Much of the debate around alcohol advertising concerns the effects on children and young people. A new report from the WHO came to light in May, claiming there is a need for more effective regulation around online marketing techniques for alcohol.

The report, Reducing the harm from alcohol – by regulating cross-border alcohol marketing, advertising and promotion, is the first from the WHO that looks at how alcohol is being marketed across national borders.

The report noted that the rising importance of digital media and global alcohol companies means alcohol marketing has become increasingly ‘cross-border’. It claimed young people and heavy drinkers were being increasingly targeted by alcohol advertising, with ‘sophisticated’ online marketing becoming more prevalent.

Will Gilroy, director of policy and communications at the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), noted that alcohol marketing is already subject to strong controls. He said: “On top of that, you have industry regulations that go above and beyond existing controls, ensuring that minors are exposed as little as possible to alcohol marketing ads. “Those industry regulatory initiatives are constantly evolving.”

In response to a consultation by the WHO before the publication of the report, the WFA submitted a document with its views. “We took a bit of issue with the concept of cross-border marketing,” said Gilroy. “The idea that marketing spend leaks across borders is counterintuitive; it flies in the face of marketing.”

Typically, multinational advertisers will have global marketing and media budgets, which are allocated to local marketing and media teams with the aim of reaching local consumers, the WFA document notes. It added that most advertising and marketing is local, particularly when it comes to something as culturally specific as alcohol.

The WFA noted that alcohol marketers use geo-blocking software to ensure their marketing communications comply with local laws and regulations.

The recent Digital Avatar Project, commissioned by the WFA, and conducted by Nielsen, showed that 0.82% of all adverts seen online by consumers are for alcohol brands, with a minor likely to be presented with one alcohol ad for every 420 websites visited. This would translate to a minor being served one alcohol ad per 18 hours and 41 minutes spent online.

The study used four ‘avatars’ (simulated consumer profiles) to track advertising activity across 12 markets (Belgium, Brazil, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Nigeria, Philippines, South Africa, and Spain).

Technological innovation

The International Alliance for Responsible Drinking (IARD) represents 13 alcohol firms. It also issued a statement in response to the report.

The IARD’s chief executive, Henry Ashworth, said: “We are uniquely placed as experts in marketing and advertising to leverage our networks and make best use of technological innovation to ensure that the most effective and targeted safeguards are implemented to support the reductions in underage and binge drinking seen in many parts of the globe over the last decade.

“Our recent innovation includes working with social media companies to ensure the most effective digital safeguards are in place to protect minors and reduce any exposure for vulnerable groups, including partnering with Google to enable consumers to switch off digital advertising completely, if they wish.

“Widening the take-up of these standards throughout a broader set of companies is the most effective route to ensure the swiftest and most appropriate regulation of alcohol marketing and advertising.”

According to Sue Eustace, the Advertising Association’s director of public affairs, there is “little evidence to suggest that advertising bans work in tackling wider health and societal patterns”. She notes that a “population-wide approach” would not be as “effective as a community- focused approach.”

In the UK, where alcohol advertising is allowed, subject to strict rules, alcohol consumption has “consistently fallen over the last 10 years” with binge drinking in decline, Eustace added.

Eustace also pointed to the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), which has an advertising and marketing Code of Practice, and a specific framework setting standards for alcohol advertising and marketing. The ICC Code provides a model for advertising standards in 42 countries, including the UK. As a result of the increasing ‘cross-border’ nature of alcohol marketing, the WHO said more collaboration is needed between countries to effectively regulate marketing of alcoholic beverages.

Its report said governments in 66% of countries had no specific regulation about digital alcohol marketing, with partial limits in 17%, and a ban in 18%.

However, Eustace noted: “There is already extensive collaboration between countries – between advertising regulatory bodies like the ASA [the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority] and its counterparts in other countries through a Europe-wide body called the EASA (European Advertising Standards Alliance) and its international sister body – and between industry bodies like the WFA which has encouraged alcohol companies to act responsibly, and have provided a framework within which they can do this.”

Eustace noted that global advertising rules are “regularly reviewed”, with self-regulatory bodies publishing guidance and training to ensure high compliance. She cited an October 2021 study from the ASA that looked at 2,000 alcohol ads on five social media platforms, which showed the main advertisers were acting responsibly, and for those that weren’t, the ASA gave practical advice.

Opt-out option

Tom Harvey, co-founder and new-client director at alcohol-marketing agency Yesmore, noted people should have the option to opt out of alcohol marketing on social media, such as those who do not drink because they are vulnerable, pregnant, or have religious beliefs. “Social platforms should make it easier for consumers and brands to be more conscientious in their approach of alcohol marketing,” he added.

Facebook and YouTube have both implemented a tool on their sites to allow users to block alcohol advertisements. Gilroy agreed: “We should have the tools for anyone who wants to avoid alcohol marketing to opt out of seeing alcohol ads. We want to create that functionality, and Meta [Facebook’s owner] was the first one to do that. We need everyone to communicate about it.”

Last year The Alcohol Health Alliance called on the UK government to introduce restrictions for alcohol marketing after a new poll found that the majority of Brits would support measures to limit exposure of booze ads to young people.

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