This month, we present a four-part management briefing into the role the alcoholic drinks industry does play, doesn't play, and ought to play in encouraging responsible consumption. Part two sees Ben Cooper look at, not only, getting the message across, but framing the actual message itself.

Major drinks companies, trade associations and industry-backed social aspects organisations engage in a wide range of corporate responsibility initiatives, and there is a spectrum of opinion regarding the effectiveness of all these interventions. However, it is arguably the industry's involvement in responsible consumption messaging which has attracted the most debate.

Drinks companies communicate responsible consumption messages directly to their consumers in a number of ways, ranging from the 'consume responsibly' messages included in advertising to branded responsibility advertising where a full-length advert may be devoted to delivering a responsible consumption message. 

Industry-funded organisations such as DrinkWise in Australia and Drinkaware in the UK urge consumers to take a responsible approach to alcohol consumption through their websites and advertising campaigns. Other industry trade associations also engage in responsible consumption messaging along with other activities aimed at reducing alcohol misuse.

However, for public health advocates these activities represent the clearest representation of what is seen as a conflict of interest on the part of drinks companies which have a primary duty to return growth to their shareholders. That growth is contingent on commercial success and for branded consumer goods companies that is dependent on successful brand advertising, appealing to consumers to buy and drink their products. 

"The difficulty with industry-sponsored campaigns is that the industry has its foot on the accelerator and the brake at the same time," says Rob Poole, Professor of Mental Health at Glyndwr University and the lead researcher behind a report for Alcohol Concern Wales, undertaken by Glyndwr and Bangor Universities, which was published last year.

That report, entitled Achieving Positive Change in the Drinking Culture of Wales, articulates the prevailing public health view on industry-sponsored campaigns.

The report concludes: "There is a body of evidence with regard to the impact of responsible drinking campaigns that are sponsored by the alcohol industry. There is sufficient evidence to confidently say that these are ineffective."

While the industry contends that corporate social responsibility activity can bring about positive changes in consumption patterns and drinking behaviour, this view is not shared by public health experts. 

Like others published before it, the Alcohol Concern Wales report places far greater emphasis on supply-led solutions around the price and availability of alcohol. The industry has long characterised this view as being an overly dogmatic one, held by a close-knit and ideologically entrenched group of public health academics and professionals. The question of whether or not that characterisation has any validity aside, Rob Poole insists that he and his team had come to the issue with an open mind and had based their conclusions of the evidence that was available. 

Poole says that while the rate of increase in alcohol consumption in the UK has slowed over the last couple of years, the drinks industry is wrong to attribute this to successful responsible consumption campaigning. He says this is far more likely to be attributed to the recession, and this, he says, supports the hypothesis that affordability is a far more important determinant, which is what his team found also to be reflected in the available evidence.

"The industry's position is that the Drinkaware and other campaigns are working because there's been tail-off in the rate of increase in alcohol consumption over the last couple of years," says Poole. "Our argument would be that if you look at the totality of the evidence you'd expect alcohol consumption to be tailing off right now because we're in the middle of a recession. And therefore because people have got less money, notwithstanding the ongoing reduction in relative cost of alcohol, its affordability to a section of the population is diminishing, and therefore you would expect that."

The problem, Poole continues, is that there is no research showing definitively whether it is the recession or improved responsible consumption messaging which is bringing about the change. "However, you can look historically at the strength of the various factors," he says. "And when you look at the strength of the evidence around health education it's weak and when you look at the strength of the evidence about affordability it's overwhelming."

The Alcohol Concern Wales Report not only states that industry campaigns are ineffective but also that industry is not an appropriate partner in public health messaging. It concludes: "There is evidence that alcohol industry sponsored campaigns to promote responsible drinking are ineffective or counter-productive. There is a strong body of international opinion that suggests that the industry should not be engaged as a partner in efforts to reduce alcohol related harm."

Drinks industry advocates, on the other hand, argue that it is not only perfectly possible for the same voice to be urging a consumer both to buy a product and consume it responsibly but the two messages coming from the same source can be advantageous.

"We do see our role as one that can be very effective in reaching consumers with a responsible drinking message," says Carol Clark, global vice president for Beer and Better World at Anheuser-Busch InBev, which invested US$32m in responsible drinking advertising in 2011.

"There have been some studies that show that consumers are more likely to take in a message when it comes from one of their favourite brands," Clark continues. "So when they see an ad coming from Budweiser it actually may resonate more with them because they trust the brand, they trust the messaging, they appreciate the quality of the product and so they are more likely to take in what their favourite brand is telling them."

Clark's view is echoed by Carolyn Panzer, corporate responsibility director at Diageo. "We have the relationship with our consumers. Public health agencies don't necessarily have that." Diageo also invests heavily in branded responsibility advertising. Panzer points out that 20% of the company's broadcast advertising budget in the US is dedicated to responsible drinking commercials.

The notion that the skilled marketers in the drinks industry know how to communicate with their consumers is often put forward as a compelling factor in favour of company-sponsored campaigns. 

Rob Poole does not dispute the fact that industry marketers may well be more adept at communicating with and appealing to their target audience than public health agencies. 

He says that would be expected but the focus on putting over a positive message also makes the industry marketers' job easier. "What they're doing is trying to get people to do something, namely drink, albeit in a particular way, which is relatively easier to do than what the public health message is trying to do, which is getting people to stop doing something which is far, far more difficult."

A further criticism from the public health side is that putting forward a representation of non-harmful drinking in a branded context, generally portraying people having a good time consuming alcohol in a responsible fashion, becomes de facto alcohol advertising. "When you see these messages 'Drink Heineken responsibly' what is the real message? Is it drink responsibly or drink Heineken?" Mariann Skar, secretary general of Eurocare, asks. "The reality is it's 'Drink Heineken' that gets into people's heads, not the responsibility message."

It is important to bear in mind that, as the Alcohol Concern Wales report also concludes, the evidence that official public health messaging is effective at reducing alcohol misuse is also weak. However, it is certainly the case that the public health advocates who vocally present sceptical views towards industry social responsibility efforts have particularly strong reservations about branded responsibility advertising. One solution for drinks companies therefore is to focus on sponsoring non-branded responsibility messaging and this is discussed in the following section of this briefing.

For the third part of this briefing, click here. Part one can be found here.