Ben Cooper

Focus - Youth protection looms large in self-regulatory moves

By | 12 February 2009

Recent self-regulatory measures announced in the US and the UK serve to underline how critical the issue of youth protection is to the alcohol industry and its attempts to project a socially responsible image. Ben Cooper reports.

The self-regulation of drinks marketing has been in the news on both sides of the Atlantic in the past week or so, underlining how contentious this issue remains for the alcohol industry, particularly with regard to youth protection. And given the prevalence of alcohol-related problems globally, the measures introduced in the US and the UK will be of interest to alcohol marketers across many markets.
Last week, new guidelines on sponsorship were announced by the Scottish Government and Alcohol Industry Partnership. Under the measures, alcohol producers and retailers have agreed to include activities promoting responsible drinking in new commercial sponsorships; ensure alcohol brands do not sponsor teams or events with particular appeal to under-18s; carry responsible drinking messages on all point of sale communications; and conduct sampling activities at sponsored events in a "responsible manner".

Meanwhile, in the US only a few days earlier the Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) announced several changes to its marketing code of practice which it said reflected the industry's "continued commitment to responsible advertising" and took account of developments in marketing communication.

The new DISCUS stipulations include guidelines for product placement in film, TV, music videos and video games; a voluntary ban on supplier-sponsored promotions in licensed establishments on college and university campuses; and a similar ban on drinking games rewarding or encouraging excessive consumption in supplier-sponsored promotions.

Heightened self-regulatory activity can either be seen as self-preservation, reacting to increasing public and political pressure or, as the industry prefers, as responsible proactive action on the part of business. How it is interpreted is a matter of opinion. Both David Williamson, public affairs manager at the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), part of the Alcohol Industry Partnership, and Frank Coleman, senior vice president public affairs and communications at DISCUS, stressed that the respective measures were proactive rather than reactive. But what these announcements clearly demonstrate is the need for such action, while also pointing to the prime areas of concern.

While the changes in Scotland relate to sponsorship and the DISCUS announcement to advertising and point-of-sale activity, both reflect the extreme sensitivity regarding the effect of alcohol marketing on the young.

Williamson stressed the significance of the partnership representing "a cross-section of producer and retailer elements" of the Scottish drinks industry. A further undoubted strength is that the guidelines have come about as a result of industry partnering with the Government.

Clearly sports sponsorship is a powerful component in alcohol brands' media mix. The demographic match with target groups, particularly for beer, is undeniable, while associations with glamorous celebrity sports stars obviously carry a benefit. All that could be said to relate to how alcohol brands communicate with the stated intended target market. Also undeniable, however, is the fact that sporting events are watched by countless children who are exposed to the same advertising and sponsorship. This issue of what might be termed the collateral exposure to minors is what makes sports sponsorship so contentious.

This debate is also evident in the US. While the new DISCUS guidelines specifically move to limit on-sale promotions on campuses, Frank Coleman defended the use of drinks advertising during sporting events on the grounds that the proportion of the audience above legal drinking age was well above the 70% minimum set by the DISCUS guidelines.

Coleman also stressed that the DISCUS code proscribed advertising in college sports, which have a far higher public profile in the US than in most countries. However, that would appear not to preclude alcohol advertising around college sports. Indeed, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recently published research into beer advertising during National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCCA) events, and suggested the results belied the NCCA's claim that it has the most "conservative and restrictive approach" with regard to alcohol advertising of any sporting organisation.

"The NCAA lags far behind other organisations when it comes to protecting its young audience from beer ads," said George Hacker, director of CSPI's alcohol policies project. "Beer is the most abused drug on college campuses. But the NCAA is selling out students and other young people to beer marketers. If other college sports can eliminate, or at least limit, these ads, there's no reason the NCAA can't." Alcohol involvement in sport appears to be just as much a live issue in the US as it is in Europe.

The changes in Scotland received a qualified endorsement from Alcohol Focus, the Scottish alcohol-related charity. In particular, campaigners welcomed the fact that the guidelines deal with the issue of alcohol branding on children's sizes of replica shirts. This has long been a controversial issue, even though some companies and football clubs have unilaterally elected to remove such branding. James Tout, spokesperson for the Scottish Government, confirmed that the intention of the guidelines was to make this universal practice.

Gillian Bell of Alcohol Focus said the move on children's shirts is a positive step but still expressed concern about how young people react to seeing drinks branding on the shirts of players. "It's good that the kids themselves won't be advertising billboards but if the footballers themselves are still wearing branded shirts then the youngsters look up to that."

Alcohol Focus also articulated the reservation campaigners have with alcohol sponsorship of sport in general, namely that the association of alcohol with enhanced physical performance is inappropriate.

However, these guidelines appear to confirm that the Government is not of that opinion. "We don't want to completely remove the involvement of the alcohol industry from sponsorship," Tout said. "We recognise that it has a role to play but we believe it needs to be done responsibly, and not targeted at children. You've got to strike the right balance and that's what we're hoping to do with these guidelines."

While content to pursue a collaborative approach on sponsorship, the Scottish Government has shown itself to be determined to address Scotland's considerable problem of alcohol-related harm by legislative means. The Government estimates that alcohol abuse costs the country GBP2.5bn a year in additional services and lost economic productivity. Having conducted a consultation, the Government is set to announce plans for legislation which could well include minimum pricing, an under-21 age limit for buying alcohol and laws to prevent irresponsible on-premise marketing.

Relations between the Government and industry may be less cordial if and when the Government pursues these measures. For example, Williamson said the SWA was "fundamentally opposed" to minimum pricing which would be viewed as "anti competitive", while there was a lack of evidence that it will tackle alcohol-related harm.

The likelihood that Scotland will be adopting tougher laws on the sale of alcohol will have significance outside the country, not least south of the border. Scotland was an early adopter of legislation banning smoking in public places, laws that were copied in England and Wales.  Campaigners have suggested that the UK government has not taken a tough enough stance on alcohol legislation and if the Scottish measures are seen to be successful, there will be pressure for England and Wales to follow suit.

Moreover, this is happening in the midst of a major consultation by the World Health Organization on alcohol-related harm. Drinks marketing forms part of the WHO agenda for discussion and events in Scotland are likely to be watched with interest in Geneva.

Sectors: Beer & cider, Spirits, Wine

Companies: SWA

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Focus - Youth protection and self-regulation

Recent self-regulatory measures announced in the US and the UK serve to underline how critical the issue of youth protection is to the alcohol industry and its attempts to project a socially responsible image. Ben Cooper reports.

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