Marking its own homework: why alcohol marketing regulation needs to change

Andrew Misell | July 2018 | 6 minutes

As it stands, regulation of alcohol marketing in the UK is done by three main bodies: the Advertising Standards Authority, Ofcom, and the Portman Group.

The Portman Group is funded by the eight biggest alcohol companies in the UK – their sales together make up half the UK alcohol market – and is responsible for regulating several aspects of alcohol marketing, most notably packaging.

Yup, that made us pause for thought too. The alcohol industry regulate their own marketing. How does that work?

About a year ago we set out to investigate. And the big question at the heart of our investigation: what is alcohol marketing regulation for? It’s not a facetious question; it’s one we need to answer if we’re going to make sure it’s achieving those aims. And it leads to a whole lot more questions.

Is it there to police the industry – to stop it encouraging us to overuse its products? If it is, how does that fit with the industry’s constant search for new markets and new consumers?

Or is it seeking to reduce alcohol-related harm – the illnesses, injuries and unhappiness that result from heavy drinking? If they are, how does that fit with the fact that the Portman Group’s funders make their money from people drinking more?

Or are the Portman Group’s ambitions a bit less… ambitious? Is it all about removing smut from the shelves – getting rid of beers with sweary names or crude sexist images?

Or, as some cynics complain, are the Portman Group really about safeguarding reputations – about putting a corporate social responsibility gloss on an industry that sells us a product with so many potential pitfalls?

To answer all those questions, we undertook the mammoth task of reading through 12 years’ worth of decisions by the Portman Group’s Independent Complaints Panel – 99 rulings in total from January 2006 to December 2017, on drinks and their associated promotional materials that were passed to the Panel for judgement.

The results didn’t really help us clear up our big question. Instead they showed:

  • Over the 12 years we looked at, the Panel’s decision-making has been inconsistent – looking at any one decision often gives little in the way of guidance about how a similar product might be viewed in another decision. For example, in 2009 the Panel found that Mmwah! test tube shots promoted “a style of consumption that was unwise and which the Code was seeking to prevent.” Yet in 2010 the Panel ruled that three very similar test tube shot products were “highly likely” to be consumed “down-in-one” but said that they “did not breach the spirit of Code in terms of urging ‘down-in-one’ consumption.” Confusing.
  • They Panel doesn’t often seem to look for evidence to back up decisions – impression and opinion seem to count for more than real-world data about who’s drinking how much of what, and why. For example, they have ruled against several products with cartoonish labels on the basis that they will appeal to children. Yet evidence shows that teenagers – who are far more likely to drink or consider drinking than young children – are more attracted to products that will make them feel older. Not cartoons. Yet, the Panel does not seem to have done any research into which products might appeal to under 18s.
  • There’s little or no opportunity to challenge a ruling – even one that seems to be built on shaky foundations. That’s unfair for producers and the general public alike.

Looking more broadly, we found a more fundamental problem. The Portman Group only regulates the names that producers put on their drinks, and the bottles, cans and boxes they put their drinks in, plus some sponsorship arrangements. It doesn’t cover retail promotions, and it doesn’t regulate broadcast, print or online advertising. They’re all someone else’s job. For drinks companies, all these elements are linked together and support each other – that’s how modern marketing works. But each of the various regulators look at all these pieces in isolation, meaning that none of them is seeing the full picture. Overall, it doesn’t make for great regulation.

So, what’s the solution? We’re calling for the UK Government to do a thorough review of alcohol marketing regulation as part of the National Alcohol Strategy it announced in May. The best way forward may be to put in place an independent regulator of all aspects of alcohol marketing, with a clearly defined remit, who would be answerable to the public and their elected representatives.

You can read our full report here, and judge for yourself.