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Alcohol industry’s self regulation of advertising does not work

Alcohol companies do not abide with their own codes of conduct, according to a new review of alcohol advertising in the UK. The industry still promotes alcohol to young people, according to a report presented in the British Medical Journal.

Alcohol advertising is big business in the United Kingdom, as in many other parts of the world. It is estimated that 800 million pounds – equivalent to 1,3 billion USD - are spent on such advertising annually in the UK alone. The House of Commons health select committee has now examined the advertising practises of some selected British alcohol producers and communications agencies. The purpose was to see if the industry’s established system of self-regulation and codes of conduct is effective. The conclusion of the review, as it is presented by Gerard Hastings and colleagues in an article in the British Medical Journal, is clear: Self-regulation does not work. The marketing strategies of the alcohol producers are in conflict with their own codes of conduct.

See the article - "Failure of self regulation of UK alcohol advertising" - in the British Medical Journal here.

This is a conclusion with great relevance also for developing societies. The companies that have been examined in the UK, are among the big and aggressive multinational producers with activities in many countries all over the world, in particular Diageo. The report from the UK shows that marketing towards young people is a deliberate strategy from the alcohol producers. One of the reasons why the industry has defined developing societies as their emerging markets, is that these countries have a large segment of children and youth, most of them without any established drinking habits or brand preferences.

Because alcohol advertising is so extensive in the UK, it was not possible for the select committee to examine marketing practises from all relevant alcohol producers, explains Gerard Hastings and colleagues in an article in the British Medical Journal. Requests for material were therefore sent to four producers, chosen for their profile, and their respective communication agencies. This resulted in a vast amount of documents which were then analysed.

The committee looked at four themes that are banned by the industry’s own advertising codes of practice:

  1. Targeting and appealing to young people;
  2. Attitudes to drunkenness and potency;
  3. Association with social success;
  4. Sexual attractiveness

Furthermore, the committee looked at how sponsorships and new media are being used as part of the marketing strategies for alcohol.

The findings of the committee are dramatic for the industry:

  • The industry’s own codes of conduct are systematically violated in all the four areas listed above;
  • Producers take advantage of lacking regulations on sponsorship to raise brand awareness and build emotional connections with consumers;
  • Alcohol producers and their communication agencies use methods and messages to by-pass their own regulatory frameworks;
  • Producers exploit the ambiguities in the marketing codes of conduct and push their boundaries.

In the article in the British Medical Journal Gerard Hastings and his colleagues conclude by suggesting a number of restrictions on marketing, eg. that regulation of advertising practices for alcohol should be independent of the alcohol and advertising industries. Furthermore the authors recommend that also sponsorship must be covered by regulations, that the use of digital media must come under much greater scrutiny and that particular efforts should be made to protect children from alcohol advertising.