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With the ASA enforcing the new code on alcohol advertising very rigorously, how should brands now get their message across? By self regulating and presenting a united front, says Tom Bruce-Gardyne

Having taken viewers on a tour of his Arctic home, Uri opens the fridge and steps out into the snow. He then turns up the stereo, introduces his best friend Gorb and cracks opens a bottle of Smirnoff Ice. The Uri ads on TV were the first in a new series whose “satirical humour was clever, urbane and strikingly adult”, according to brand-owners Diageo. But not according to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

In September the Authority ruled the characters “were likely to become cult figures with strong appeal to under 18s” and that the series should not be shown again. Also in the dock that day – and also banned – was a  campaign for one of its big rivals, WKD.

The rulings were the first to be brought under the new code on advertising that came into force last January following the Government’s Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy of 2004. Beverage Brands UK, owners of WKD, have been here before – the “alcopop with attitude” is well known to the ASA – but for Diageo, who have bent over backwards to stress their corporate responsibility, it was a painful experience. “We were very disappointed,” says Kate Blakely, head of the company’s social responsibility unit, that had passed the ads along with the official clearance authority, the BACC, before they were broadcast.

Interestingly, the adverts were put on trial by the regulators’ own monitoring committee and not because the public complained. This in itself shows just how rigorously the new code is being enforced, particularly on the issue of targeting under-age drinkers. The old rule that alcohol ads should have no “particular appeal to under-18s” has been changed to no “strong appeal”. It may sound pedantic, but it cost Diageo dear. According to Blakely, it was the interpretation of the new wording that did for poor Uri and Gorb.

Cramping the style

So how muzzled do the advertisers now feel, and can they still get their message across without falling foul of the ASA? For Russell Vine of Cheetham Bell JWT – the Manchester agency behind the Lambrini girls, the new rules “carry some fairly big negatives. We feel the code is too Draconian and poorly conceived, though it’s no use moaning now. What you must do is create a vibe for your brand and an image that appeals to your target audience without being overt.” That said, Vine believes the new rules could be “a great leveller” because, “when image is everything, some brands will just be out-gunned. If it’s Lambrini versus Bacardi they’re simply going to be more glamorous with a much bigger budget.”

Blakely believes advertisers should not feel constrained when it comes to glamour. “You can still show light flirting and romance, for example. You don’t have to use unattractive people.” Yet this is not what the ASA told Cheetham Bell in a famous ruling on a poster showing three Lambrini girls “hooking” a man in an imitation fairground game. Given that adverts must not link alcohol to social or sexual success, they suggested the man should be replaced with someone “unattractive – overweight, middle-aged, balding etc.” And, no, it wasn’t a joke. “The ASA don’t do irony,” says Vine, whose agency got the story into the press and generated over £1 million in free publicity.

Regulation and rebellion
With Nanny State wagging her finger in disapproval and the tabloids revelling in tales of binge drinking Britain and wild hen parties, Lambrini played up to its “cheeky girl” image for a while. “We had a style of ads that were quite contentious and a bit rude with jokes about vibrators. Over the years it became less and less viable to make any sexual innuendo,” says Vine. Old-style commercials like the so-called “bonking in the box” ad for Smirnoff Ice are now totally taboo.

Certain advertisers will always be tempted to see how far they can go because a bit of disapproval can give brands a boost – just think of the music industry and its use of “explicit lyrics” warnings to sell CDs. “That is why the regulator, the ASA, has to play its part and ensure the boundaries don’t get pushed back,” says David Poley, head of the Portman Group. “Self-regulation can and does work very well. The ASA is an independent body with its independent council and is not the industry sitting in judgement on itself.”

Gerry O’Donnell, brand manager for The Famous Grouse, agrees that self-regulation has to be seen to be working in what is “a period when everyone will be under close scrutiny. The awareness in the industry could not be higher regarding the duty of responsibility. The Scotch Whisky Association is very strong on policing its code of marketing practice.” O’Donnell knows how sensitive the issues are. His own brand’s use of animation caused concern at Ofcom, which feared a cartoon grouse might appeal to children. Luckily they relented.

Pressure group tactics

Those lobbying Government for tighter controls on advertising are naturally suspicious of self-regulation and probably realise they have a better chance of success if politicians take control – these being people with voters and headlines to worry about. During 2006 there were a number of calls for an outright ban on drinks advertising, notably in September by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Two months earlier a report before Parliament’s Science Select Committee argued for reclassifying drugs with alcohol in fifth place ahead of tobacco, LSD and ecstasy.

Yet rather than a pre-emptive strike, many lobbyists favour a drip-drip approach such as banning TV ads before the 9pm watershed – an argument put to MPs by Alcohol Concern in December. Its press officer, Frank Soodeen said he “was struck by how harassed the industry seemed to be. They were fed up with being scapegoats.” This has been happening in other sectors, as Andrew Brown, head of the Association of Advertisers, told the same meeting. “The junk food campaign had made it clear that by emotively stirring up support in the media, it was possible to get politicians, who were ‘opinion-based people’ to take rash decisions.”

Divide and conquer
Pressure groups also like to point to other countries. In France there is the notorious Loi Evin policy, which bans TV and cinema ads and all sponsorship for anything over 1.2% abv. Elsewhere in Europe there are bans in Ireland, Spain, Austria, Belgium, Finland and Sweden, mostly for spirits. How much this is down to genuine concern or a desire to protect the local wine and beer industry is hard to say. In America, the fact spirits are not promoted on network TV says much about the power of the beer barons who seem to own the airwaves when it comes to alcohol.

Luckily, thanks to the Portman Group, the UK drinks industry is more closely bound together. “They may be taxed differently, but in terms of the way in which alcohol is treated, sold and marketed there isn’t any difference between sectors,” says Poley, who believes this is crucial. “The more united the industry can be the better as there’s less chance of divide and conquer.” He also believes the threats are not just from the outside. “The industry is only ever one short step away from bringing problems on itself. We don’t know what’s round the corner.” On this note it’s probably good news that alcopops have been taxed into decline.

A soft target

Overall, “given the rules were revised and tightened only a year ago”, Poley does not think “there’s an imminent threat of further restrictions or a ban, but we can’t be complacent.” However, he accepts that advertising is a soft target that appeals to politicians who have to be seen to be doing something if only to appease the media. Cool analysis of the evidence from abroad suggests banning booze from the box would have little effect on under-age drinking or levels of cirrhosis, especially in the UK where 80% of alcohol is sold unadvertised. Yet cool analysis is not what you always get in the pages of the Daily Mail.

Since spirits returned to TV in 1996 after a 30-year absence, the amount the drinks industry spends on advertising in the UK has grown to around £200m a year. This spend is predicted to remain, though probably less of it will go on television as it is spread across a wider mix of new media. Any advertising agency that loses out can always pitch for one of the Government’s well-funded responsible drinking campaigns.

Up in smoke
For Chris Ogden, director of the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association, this doubtless provokes a sense of déjà vu. He remembers the big agencies quietly dropping cigarette accounts in the hope of scooping part of the £500m spent on anti-smoking ads. His advice to the drinks industry is “never under-estimate the power of the single-issue pressure group, don’t make concessions and dig your heels in for the freedom of commercial speech.”

© db May 2007

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