Smirnoff has been known for its innovative and creative advertising for many years but with its latest ad, which takes the promotion of sensible alcohol consumption as its central theme, the Diageo-owned brand has broken new ground in an altogether different way. Chris Brook-Carter takes a look at the ad and examines what has motivated Diageo to take this bold step.

In the history of consumer goods advertising, there is no doubt it is something of a first. But while Diageo's latest advert, which actually encourages consumers to drink less of its products, may take consumers - who are used to being sold to, and then sold to some more - by surprise, it is a logical step for an industry faced with the growing threat of government regulation.

On the surface the advert, delivered using the Smirnoff brand, is an attempt to promote sensible drinking in a country where there is heightening concern of an ingrained alcohol abuse culture.

It features a couple - Hank and Cindy - enjoying a meal at a restaurant. They are approached by a man who is an old friend of Hank's, who upon hearing the couple are recently engaged, regales stories of Hank's past as a ladies' man, to the shock of his girlfriend. The ad finishes on the line, "Knowing when to stop is a good thing."

But deeper down the advert is also an attempt by the drinks world's leader to demonstrate to legislators that the industry is more than capable of regulating itself over the issue of responsible drinks advertising. It is a battle that has become increasingly fraught since the advent of RTDs, whose adverts, anti-drinks lobbyists believe, appeal to far too young an audience.

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"Now that Diageo has exited fast foods the need to build our reputation in drinks is important. We sink or swim in drinks"
Now that Diageo has exited fast foods the need to build our reputation in drinks is important. We sink or swim in drinks," Tony Mair, Diageo GB's corporate affairs director tells just-drinks. "The scrutiny on the industry is intense."

He adds: "We need to demonstrate that we are quite capable of managing our industry sensibly. If we demonstrate a collective responsibility there will be no need for legislation."

Certainly the threat of legislation in the UK has never been greater. The government is at present drawing up its own plan of action to limit alcohol abuse and if it is influenced at all by its nearest neighbours, Ireland and France, both of which have imposed or are in the process of imposing strict advertising restrictions, the omens do not look good.

Furthermore, with tobacco industry advertising all but defeated, the public health lobby is increasingly turning its attention to drink and fatty foods. And, only last month at the BMA annual conference, doctors voted to lobby the government for a total ban on drinks advertising.

There are certainly concerns too that this ad campaign is too little, too late. Against the vast backdrop of drinks advertising in the UK, one has to wonder whether it can have much effect on UK consumers who are particularly cynical to preaching health messages - doubly so when they are being told to have less fun.

And given that some alcohol adverts push existing advertising legislation and self-imposed drinks industry codes of conduct to their absolute limit, health industry professionals and those dealing with the problems of alcohol will inevitably be somewhat sceptical.

In response to Diageo's ad, the UK's major charity dealing with alcohol abuse, Alcohol Concern, said: "We welcome a commitment to responsible advertising as an important first step but believe that actions speak louder than words. The drinks trade currently spends around £227m a year on advertisements which often push the boundaries of the current self regulation system as far as they will go.


"Taking a more responsible approach to advertising alcohol means at the very least staying within the spirit rather than just the letter of the current codes "
Taking a more responsible approach to advertising alcohol means at the very least staying within the spirit rather than just the letter of the current codes and needs to actively discourage irresponsible drinking."

The advert also throws up an interesting paradox for the drinks industry. Those fighting for a liberal attitude to alcohol advertising continually argue that brand advertising creates brand choice and does not affect drinking behaviour. In other words, if a normal advert for Smirnoff merely promotes brand choice rather than influencing an increase in consumption, how can an advert from the same brand influence a reduction in consumption?

All this said, Diageo needs to be seen to be doing something. And this is certainly more than a token effort. Some £500,000 is being placed behind the advert, a tenth of Smirnoff's marketing budget. The company has also appointed Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO to come up with other ways, above and below the line, to get the message across.

There are also signs the advert which has already been running in the US has had some impact there. Diageo says research in that market showed that respondents enjoyed watching it very much (20% higher than average) and a high proportion found it involving (40% higher than average).

In the UK, Mair says that Diageo will review the results of this approach in September and interestingly he hasn't ruled out the possibility that the company may back a generic approach if the branded path fails to show dividends, along the lines of the successful drink driving campaigns.

"The prospect of a generic campaign is interesting - if the long term goal is a different culture we need to talk to the government," he says, before admitting that there are currently talks exploring that possibility.

Any such generic campaign could possibly fall under the auspices of The Portman Group, the industry-funded organisation which speaks on alcohol policy issues and runs anti-alcohol abuse programmes and campaigns. The Portman Group believes that drinks companies have to show a clear and visible commitment to encouraging responsible consumption and welcomed the Diageo move.

"We'd encourage all companies to do all they can to promote their products responsibly and this is a genuine attempt to do this," Jim Minton, The Portman Group's director of campaigns and communications, told just-drinks. "


"Responsible companies should make sure they are promoting their products in a way that they are designed to be consumed"
Responsible companies should make sure they are promoting their products in a way that they are designed to be consumed.

Naturally an advocate of self-regulation, The Portman Group believes that current advertising legislation, if enforced correctly, is tough enough to deal with irresponsible companies. "Companies need to stick to the letter and the spirit of the current advertising laws," Minton said, "and the people who are responsible for upholding those should enforce them."

Combined with the efforts of the Portman Group and other producers, such as Allied Domecq, which has been putting moderation messages on its print advertising globally since last year, the beginning of a strong statement has been made by the industry.

"Drinks suppliers act more responsibly than they are given credit for. It is an easier headline when someone misbehaves than when drinks companies conduct responsibly," says Mair.

"The activities of the few get louder press but when companies like ours do a lot we don't make enough of it. Probably the drinks industry needs to be more vocal."

And there are signs that these efforts are beginning to pay off. Given the scale of the alcohol problem in this country, the related diseases and negative social effects, there is good reason to believe alcohol gets proportionally less attention than it deserves compared to other vices, particularly fatty foods, which seem to have leapt above it as a target for health lobbyists.

But only the arrival of the government plan of action will reveal, how successful the drinks industry has been. "The draft policy on alcohol will give us a pretty good indication of the way the government is going," says Mair.

Drinks companies are not alone in waiting for the government to publish its review of the alcohol abuse issue. In fact, the review has been anticipated for a number of years now and some health professionals and interest groups believe the government has been dragging its feet.

The draft policy document, now to be known as National Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy, has recently become the responsibility of the Deputy Prime Minister's office and is expected to be published by the end of the year.
 
While on one level alcohol producers have been less perturbed by the delay, given that there is a chance that it could presage legislation, from a practical standpoint the industry needs to gain a clear idea of how the government sees the problem and what legislation if any is forthcoming.

The government is known to have consulted the drinks industry in the process of compiling its draft document. When it is finally published, drinks companies will know just how seriously its self-regulation initiatives - not to mention proactive measures such as Diageo's latest ad - are being taken by legislators.