Close Menu

Ungagged at last

A proposed amendment to French advertising law could allow wine producers to describe their wines to consumers. Sacré bleu! says Jon Rees

IN THE END it was a wonderfully French compromise: the law restricting alcohol advertising was amended to allow wine to be advertised more freely, but without actually mentioning wine at all.

In the French National Assembly the powerful wine lobby won perhaps its most important victory for many years; the freedom for wine to slip out from under the restrictions imposed by the Loi Evin, which prevents alcohol advertising on television and at sporting events, and limits it severely in print.

The change came in an amendment to a rural affairs bill and was made in a clause which does not actually mention wine at all.  The new clause is aimed at products "benefiting from a label of origin or a geographical indication" for which, if the law is eventually passed, advertising can "include references relative to the qualitative characteristics of the product".

In other words, producers can promote wines by emphasising their taste, nose and overall image.  That part about "geographical indication" is especially important.

This is because under European Union law any drink clearly linked to a geographical region, such as Finnish vodka or Scotch whisky, should be allowed to be promoted with considerably more freedom than other drinks.

The amendment is not law yet because it has to be ratified by the Senate, France’s upper house.  However, wine lobbyists are confident of victory there in January since the Senate has previously voted in favour of even more wide-ranging measures to boost wine.

Under its proposals, subsequently moderated by the National Assembly, advertisements for wine would be allowed to include references to its "sensory and organstimulating characteristics".

Since French advertising is still far more obsessed with female nudity and sex generally than its UK counterpart, that amendment could have proved interesting, to the French television viewing public at least.

Indeed, the existing amendment leaves plenty of scope for liberal interpretation, say the many and powerful opponents of the clause.  "The adoption of this amendment as part of a catchall law with no link to public health is shockingly irresponsible," says the National Association for the Prevention of Alcoholism.

Other opponents of the relaxation of the law say the new amendment could be used to justify the kinds of alcohol advertising which has long been considered taboo, like the use of attractive women and young people to encourage consumption.

Using imagination

"You only have to think of the imagination of the advertisers to realise how they are going to rush into this opportunity," said Claude Evin, the Socialist former health minister who was responsible for the 1991 law which bears his name.

Evin’s party were divided on the issue with most, but not all, socialists voting against, along with the communists.  The centre-right UDF party abstained, while only the progovernment UMP voted in favour of the amendment.

President Chirac’s government objected to the new rules, though it was reluctant to force a showdown with deputies from the wine producing regions of the country.  The measure, though, is a triumph for the French wine lobby and a great relief to the 160,000 people who work in the French wine industry.

It argues for wine to be exempted as a matter of vital national interest.  This, of course, is because the French wine industry is in such a parlous state, partly of its own making. Domestic consumption of wine has plummeted in France, from 100 litres per head in 1960 to 58 litres in 2002, the latest year for which full figures are available.

That trend is likely to continue, with the winemakers’ lobby suggesting sales could fall by a further 20% in the next few years. 

Losing taste for wine

French youth, in particular, seems to have lost its taste for wine and is opting for beer, spirits, mixers – anything but wine.

Nor are they keen to inherit the arcane knowledge of wines, their labels and origins, etc, which seemed endemic to a previous generation.  Many French youngsters couldn’t tell a Sauvignon from a Sancerre and have no interest in finding out.

France, meanwhile, is producing wine more successfully than ever, which is part of the reason why the wholesale price of Bordeaux, for instance, has halved in the past three years. But abroad the French wine industry is having its nose rubbed in its own failure to respond to gradual, but significant changes in its markets.

New world wines from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Latin and North America have stolen markets from a complacent French wine industry which has consistently refused to adapt to changing consumer tastes.

While new world wines were sold by grape variety in clearly and attractively labelled bottles, backed by fresh, simple advertising campaigns which aimed, successfully, to wipe away the mystique and snobbery surrounding wine, the French merely sneered at the parvenus until it was too late.

French wine exporters have seen their markets seized by the newcomers: for the first time, no French wine is in the list of top 10 bestselling wines in the UK; instead all the wines are Australian, American South Africa.

And while the US wine import market grew by 28% from 1999-2002, and Australia’s share grew to 18% in 2002 from 11% in 1999, France’s share fell to 18% in 2002 from 24% in 1999.

President under pressure

In France, too, the health lobby is a powerful opponent to the wine producers.  Indeed, Philippe Douste- Blazy, the health minister, opposes the change to the advertising rules, saying it "casts doubt on the government’s entire public health policy" and noting that alcohol abuse causes 45,000 premature deaths in France. Two-thirds of those deaths (some 30,000) are attributed to wine. 

President Chirac made it one of his priorities in his second term to reduce the number of deaths on French roads, and medical associations say they will write to him urging him to resist the amendment to the advertising rules.

For the moment, though, French wine producers are happy.  In the words of Florence Raffard of the Bordeaux Wine Trade Council: "It was hard to describe a product without naming its attributes." 

It looks like you're in Asia, would you like to be redirected to the Drinks Business Asia edition?

Yes, take me to the Asia edition No