Alcoholic drinks manufacturers have just one week left to persuade Ofcom that its review of TV alcohol advertising rules is flawed. Fail and the consequences will be severe, warned Andrew Brown, director general of the Advertising Association at last week’s Westminster Diet & Health Forum seminar on alcohol regulation.
“Only 14% of current ads would pass through the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Centre under these proposals,” he said. “This is not dealing with alcohol misuse. It is a broadbrush attack on industry.”
No one denies the broadcasting code needs strengthening and that industry must shoulder some of the blame for advertising that has met the letter, but not the spirit, of the existing code. But Ofcom’s proposed revisions are contentious, not least because they are based on questionable research and move into the realms of telling brands what they can do - not just what they can’t.
“Let’s be clear about devising rules that stop mischief,” said Brown. “The codes need to be proscriptive not prescriptive. This review is different in nature to other Ofcom initiatives. It is very detailed and allows little interpretation. It is interventionist and there is a risk of denying regulators a role.”
This prescriptive nature is shown in the “unhelpful and limiting guidance notes,” says legal director of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, Marina Palomba. For example, Ofcom says it favours ads showing calm, mature socialising where drinking is restrained and responsible.
Other revisions include forbidding treatments that imply sexual attraction and flirting - even if the act of drinking is not directly linked to the scene - but recommending ads that show affection between established, mature couples. Meanwhile, dietary qualities, like low-carb content or weight control, are also no-nos and there are restrictions on the portrayal of how alcohol is handled and served.
“We understand the intentions behind this proposal from Ofcom but we would like to see some balance,” says Bacardi-Martini executive director Chris Searle. “Is the vodka martini, shaken not stirred, too exciting for the future? Are we only permitted to show sherry sipped between consenting adults?”
Other disputed areas are the use of animals, music and sport. Bacardi Breezer’s Tomcat campaign, for example, might fail to meet the criteria. Tim Suter, partner, content and standards, at Ofcom, concedes that advertising influences drinking less than other factors, such as education, workplace stress, family environment, peer pressure and cultural norms. But he says stricter controls now will help prevent an all-out ban.
Research shows that children aged from 10 to 12 enjoy ads for alcohol because they are quirky, use humour, animals and animation and are exciting - encapsulating all that is youth culture, he adds.
It is this latter point that is most contentious. One proposal is that content must not have a strong appeal to the under-18s. “Youth appeal is the most difficult and important issue and changes here will have an impact on 18-plus consumers,” admits Suter. “Youth culture can span the ages of 12-22. Advertising has to avoid the arena and a lot of current ads would disappear.”
The industry is demanding clarification and wants Ofcom to withdraw much of the detail and return to the spirit of the code. Consultation ends on Friday (September 24) and Ofcom is not expected to publish its findings for a further six weeks.