No one can deny the slow but sure liberalisation spirits advertising has been party to over the last five years. But with the war on tobacco almost won, attention will return to drinks industry regulations. Chris Brook-Carter reviews a report by analyst Datamonitor who argues that media support is the key to winning the PR war.

The global battle for acceptance of spirits advertising is at a watershed, according to a report released to, with both increased liberalisation and a further clamp down the possible divergent outcomes of a increasingly heated of debate.

DiSaronno Originale Amaretto advert

"Based on the evidence available at this time, it would appear that the alcohol industry is broadly moving towards a more liberalised, harmonised and self-regulatory policy on advertising," says Datamonitor, the industry analyst, in a report entitled "The Future of Alcohol Advertising."

However, it goes on to warn: "This move is far from an inevitability and will be hugely dependent on the behaviour of manufactures now."

The catalyst it seems for the increased focus on the drinks industry is two-fold. Firstly there has been a gradual acceptance in the US of spirits advertising on TV. This began in 1996 when the Distilled Spirits Council amended its code of practice to include the use of broadcast channels and culminated in May this year when Bacardi advertised its DiSaronnno Original Amaretto brand on US cable channels.

There is a continued
bias towards beer
advertising over spirits

The second reason is outside of the industry's control. With the battle against tobacco all but won, "media attention", Datamonitor says, "will inevitably turn to alcohol advertising, once again raising the debate over the most effective method of regulating the industry."

The drinks industry has two factors in its corner. The first is that, despite the strong anti-alcohol lobby in the US and a continued bias towards beer advertising over spirits, no one can deny the slow but sure move towards liberalisation there. Datamonitor is predicting that self-regulation will remain in the US, however some sort of independent body may enforce it.

Despite any political reluctance by the EU to follow the lead of the US, what happens in this giant market cannot be ignored. Political and media pressure will be brought to bear on the EU and "it is therefore reasonable to expect that if moves towards greater liberalisation by spirits manufactures are publicly accepted in the US, this will act to facilitate liberalisation in Europe also."

However perhaps of even more significance is the internal mood within the EU, which is keen to harmonise laws across the region. This combined with a more liberal attitude to drinks advertising may make it difficult to maintain the more draconian alcohol laws of countries such as Sweden, which prevents almost all alcohol advertising, and France with its Loi Evin.

Ban on TV and exhaustive restrictions in other media
Germany Specific code rule or note of guidance covers this issue
Italy Specific code rule or note of guidance covers this issue
Netherlands Specific code rule or note of guidance covers this issue
Spain TV ban on alcohol over 20% abv plus location restrictions
Sweden Ban on advertising of spirits, wine and strong beer
UK Specific code rule or note of guidance covers this issue
US Specific code rule or note of guidance covers this issue

The Smoke Screen

It is interesting to see Datamonitor draw so many parallels between the tobacco industry and the spirits industry. And it is hard to argue with its conclusions that the fates of the two businesses are so interrelated. Restrictions on tobacco will almost certainly increase holes in sponsorship and advertising will be left by the departure of cigarette companies, with excellent marketing opportunities for spirits.

But the drinks industry must be wary, as any obvious transfer of advertising rights from tobacco to spirits would only increase the public perception that the two industries are inter-related.

In general the alcohol industry has done well in its efforts to present itself as responsible to the concerns of the public

The case of Red Bull over the last week, when three Swedes died after apparently consuming the energy drink, emphasises the power of the media to whip-up public opinion over what is perceived as a potential health threat. And there is no doubt when reading the report how much emphasis Datamonitor puts on the importance of public perception, which in turn is driven largely by the media. In fact it goes as far as to say: "There is every reason to believe that alcohol will not follow the same path as tobacco as long as manufacturers carefully manage media and public perceptions."

In general the alcohol industry has done well in its efforts to present itself as responsible to the concerns of the public. Its involvement in bodies such as the Portman Group and its support of the designated drivers campaign are important steps in boosting its public image. But more can be done.

"The role of impression management cannot be underestimated, as one of the most important factors determining the final outcome is the infamously volatile factors of media and public opinion," says Datamonitor.

A balance needs to be struck between growing sales through advertising and what is perceived as social responsibility, and the report outlines what it sees as three parts of a plan of best practice at the moment. The first is the continued support of industry bodies that are being seen to combat the negative effects of alcohol in society. Membership to these is seen as a positive step by the industry in addressing the concerns of the public and policy makers. Indeed the report goes as far as to warn those outside such groups that they risk being made scapegoats by the media or other manufacturers attempting to boost their own PR efforts.

The second recommendation is about going the extra distance, in other words be proactive about addressing concerns rather than merely adhering to the law. Again this is all about perception.

Finally Datamonitor returns to its main point - management of the media - which it considers could be the deciding factor in the direction the attitude towards alcohol advertising, takes. Indeed the report goes as far as to warn that, if not managed correctly the backlash against spirits advertising, particularly in the US, could force a reassessment of all drinks advertising as a whole and endanger beer and wine marketing as well.

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