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UK: Online drinks adverts face tougher checks

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The UK Government's advertising watchdog is set to enforce stricter rules for online marketing by the alcoholic drinks industry.

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Drinks companies' own websites are to be subject to the same rules and scrutiny as online adverts on third party websites under the new proposal, which is set to be endorsed by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) later this year.

All forms of online marketing generated by the drinks trade could be covered by the rule change.

Online drinks adverts, such as banners on third party websites, are already covered by the ASA's non-broadcast code, but the industry and ASA agree that this should be extended to better protect young people below the minimum drinking age of 18 years.

The alcohol industry's self-regulatory body, The Portman Group, has introduced guidelines on digital marketing but these are voluntary.
 
"We're going to hand over responsibility for digital marketing to the ASA at the end of this year," Portman's chairman, Seymour Fortescue, told delegates at a conference on alcohol and public health in London today (8 July).

Despite efforts to tighten online regulation, some have expressed concern that the ASA and Portman will not seek to tackle unofficial images and information on drinks brands on the internet - so-called user generated content.

Many social networking sites popular with young people have fan pages that include alcoholic drinks and this is "completely unregulated", warned the Scottish Youth Commission on Alcohol (SYCA).

"It's consumers who are promoting consumption of alcohol, often to extremes," said Tobias Paul, a commissioner for SYCA. He named Bebo, a social networking site popular with school-age children, as a particular problem and where users have set up fan pages for brands including Smirnoff and WKD.

Mark Baird, the head of corporate social responsibility for Smirnoff producer Diageo, denied any involvement by the company in creating the fan group. 

He told just-drinks that the industry is powerless to control user generated content. "If there was something that we could do, then we'd do it," he said. Diageo was recently forced to issue a statement denying any involvement in a drinking game known as "Icing" involving Smirnoff and which spread rapidly throughout the US with the help of the internet.

"User generated content is a real problem," said Dr Ian Twinn, director of public affairs at advertisers' trade body, ISBA.

"What you can't have is advertisers being held responsible for something that a group of students whip up at three o'clock in the morning."

Portman's Fortescue said that drinks firms were uneasy with user generated viral marketing on their brands. "Generally speaking, producers are as unhappy with it as we are," he said.

The London conference on public health and alcohol was organised by the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum.


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