Making sure alcohol is marketed responsibly

Alcohol marketing is complex and multi-channel, and its reach is enormous.

Currently, regulation is overseen by non-government organisations such as the Advertising Standards Authority and industry bodies such as the Portman Group. Most of the rules on broadcast advertising were drawn up in a pre-digital age and have struggled to keep pace with changes such as social media marketing and video on demand. We are calling for a thorough overhaul of the way alcohol marketing is regulated – so that alcohol producers and sellers are clear about how they can and can’t promote their products, and consumers know when they can expect the regulators to step in.

Here, we look at the ways alcohol is promoted and the changes needed to ensure it is marketed responsibly and only to adult drinkers.

The alcohol marketing mix

Alcohol marketing is a huge, multinational business worth hundreds of millions of pounds annually. It is also increasingly complex. It’s no longer just about adverts in print or on broadcast media. It’s a sophisticated mix of product design and placement, social media, celebrity endorsements, sponsorship of sports and culture, and much more. All of these various elements of the marketing mix support and depend on each other. However, regulation lags far behind in both scope and purpose and the activities of current regulators often lack transparency.

For example, when Heineken linked up with the James Bond film franchise, the deal included images of 007 on Heineken bottles and boxes, product placement in the films, television commercials, access for fans to unseen movie content, and even a selfie taken from space for people to share via social media.

Under the current regulatory system, packaging is overseen by the Portman Group, advertising by the ASA, and sponsorship of TV shows by Ofcom. The end result is that no single regulator sees the complete picture.

The multi-channel nature of alcohol marketing means that the potential reach of drinks industry messages is potentially enormous. One particular concern is that alcohol marketing reaches many people well-below the legal drinking age, and studies have shown that children as young as 10 and 11 years are often very familiar with alcohol brands.

In order to be effective, and reflect the reality of 21st century marketing, regulation should:

  • Be wholly independent of the industry: The alcohol industry faces an inevitable conflict of interest between its need to increase profits and expand into new markets, and society’s need to reduce alcohol harm. For that reason, regulation should be entirely independent of the industry and supported with full legal powers.
  • Be transparent and accountable: When decisions are made about whether to allow or prevent a particular product or marketing campaign, those decisions need to be transparent and be clearly explained to producers and consumers. The regulators need to be open to proper public scrutiny and challenge.
  • Be evidence-based: Without a solid evidence base for their work, it is impossible for regulators to be fair to consumers or producers. There is an enormous body of research evidence on the potential effects on alcohol marketing, which should inform the decisions that are made.
  • Be focussed on reducing alcohol harm: Current regulatory codes focus on ensuring that alcohol is marketed 'responsibly', without saying exactly what this means. Without a clear definition, there is a risk that promoting 'responsible' alcohol marketing simply becomes a means to avoid reputational damage to alcohol companies. The codes need to be refocused to concentrate on the areas where there is a good body of evidence that action could be taken to reduce alcohol-related harm.
  • Consider alcohol marketing in the round: Drinks producers don’t see packaging, advertising and sponsorship as separate entities, but currently that’s exactly what the regulators do. We need a regulatory system that considers the whole ‘marketing mix’.