The latest campaign against binge drinking will favour subtle persuasion over scare tactics. But will it work, ask Nicolette Allen and Richard Ford

They're calling it the UK's "biggest-ever" responsible drinking campaign. Suppliers, retailers, charitable body Drinkaware and the government announced last week they were forming a united front to tackle abuse of alcohol by young people.

With a staggering £100m behind it - and the support of more than 45 companies - the Campaign for Smarter Drinking is pushing the message that it is okay to drink, if you do so responsibly.

The idea is to offer practical tips on enjoying alcohol sensibly, remind people to drink water or soft drinks as well as alcohol on an evening out, to eat food and to make plans to get home safely. But with its strapline is 'Why let good things go bad?' will the five-year campaign's subtle tactics work?

The campaign is not the first anti-binge drinking initiative. It is not even the first this month, coming hot on the heels of both Pernod Ricard's new 18 to 24-year-old phase of its ongoing Accept Respon­sibility campaign, and Beverage Brands' Look After Your Mates initiative, which aims to stop young people becoming so inebriated they injure themselves.

In fact, tackling binge drinking has been high on the industry's agenda ever since the PM issued a challenge 18 months ago to curb underage and binge drinking - or face tougher action from the government. The government swiftly pointed the finger of blame at the industry - and particularly the supermarkets - for encouraging binge drinking through cheap booze deals.

Whether they are to blame or not, it is difficult to overstate the scale of the problem. The UK has one of the highest binge-drinking rates in Europe; third behind Ireland and Finland, according to the most recent Eurobarometer survey. More than 1.7 million men in the UK drink more than 50 units of alcohol a week and 600,000 women drink more than 35 units.

This places them at levels the government defines as "harmful" or "higher risk", exposing them to illnesses including cancer and liver disease. The government's Know Your Limits campaign - launched in October 2006 - favoured stern warnings such as "too much alcohol actually makes you vulnerable, even while it makes you feel tough" and images of drunken young people full of bravado falling to their doom.

What differentiates the latest initiative from the government's ongoing campaign is that like previous industry campaigns, it eschews the sort of shock tactics that might scare people off drinking altogether. It also the biggest to date involving retailers as well as suppliers. Tesco, Morrisons and Asda have all lent their support.

Preventative measures
"Nowhere in the world have so many parties come together to tackle binge drinking," says Chris Sorek, CEO of Drinkaware.

The retailers are keen to demonstrate they are part of the solution rather than the problem - and in so doing persuade the government that there is no need for a ban on alcohol promotions.

Punishing consumers through minimum pricing and a ban on promotions will not tackle the problem but merely "hit hard working families struggling to make ends meet", says Guy Mason, public affairs manager at Asda .

While extensive, the support is not comprehensive. There are two notable absentees: Sainsbury's and Waitrose. While Waitrose has declined to provide any explanation, Sainsbury's says it does not want to duplicate the messages being putting out through initiatives it is already involved with, such as support for the Drinkaware Trust and a Think-25 policy at all its stores to help prevent alcohol being sold to the underage drinkers.

It also chairs the Retail of Alcohol Standards Group and in 2007 was the first supermarket to adopt government guidelines on the labelling of alcohol. Yet another scheme would be a step too far, it argues.

Falling to their doom
There may be another explanation for the two chains' lack of involvement, says Alex Waters, director of brand consultancy The Value Engineers. They may have felt that by joining the campaign they - or more accurately their shoppers - would be seen as part of the problem, he suggests.

There will inevitably be scepticism over an industry-led initiative purporting to encourage people to drink less - when it's in the financial interests of those involved to get them drink to drink more.

But campaign chairman Richard Evans is confident in a positive outcome, having roped in what he describes as some of the "best marketing brains in the country" to work on the campaign.

Diageo GB marketing director Philip Almond, who was heavily involved in devising the campaign's marketing message, insists the subtler approach conveys the responsible message in a more engaging way than the government's hardline tactics. "A much quieter, friendlier tap on the shoulder, conducted in the language of the target audience" is the only way to bring about the cultural change needed to shake Britain out of its boozy mindset, he says. "The message here is aimed at those who overindulge and binge drink, but also feel a certain amount of shame about it. This campaign will provide the toolkit in generating communication and enforcement to change a nation's habits."

Waters thinks the approach is the right one. "This is taking a different kind of approach altogether to many initiatives we have seen in the past. Smarter Drinking is still about having fun with alcohol, and there is a definite positive spin, as these companies recognise it's impossible to completely prevent binge drinking - if people want to do it, they'll do it," he says.

Impossible to prevent
The message will work alongside, rather than confuse those of existing campaigns, believes Beverage Brands' joint MD Karen Salters. But not everyone is convinced by this 'softly softly' approach, however. "This seems like it's just another angle on the same old initiative," says Kate Waddell, managing director consumer brands, at brand consultancy Dragon Rouge. "Instead of saying 'Mother says no', they are taking a more patronising tone: 'Mother knows best'."

Others argue that the message is not strong enough - and that the response will be ambivalent.

The campaign's supporters remain confident their message will get through and that they are preaching to an audience that is to a certain extent already converted. Home Office figures from last month indicated 65% of 18-to-24-year-olds said the Know Your Limits campaign had made them think about how much they drink.

The greatest challenge now as far as the industry concerned is to encourage consumers to act on that knowledge - and to do so in moderation.

Landmark campaign
The Campaign for Smarter Drinking is targeting 18-30 year olds. It will run until 2014.

Over 45 companies are involved, including retailers and drinks suppliers. Some of the world's biggest companies are taking part, including Diageo, Pernod Ricard, S&N UK, Molson Coors, Beverage Brands and Carlsberg UK.

Ads will be rolled out simultaneously on over 10,000 poster sites. Marketing messages will also appear in more than 20,000 outlets across off and on-trade locations. The campaign will also be promoted on more than 10 million packs of beer/wine/spirits.