SOFT TARGETS

Alcoholic soft drinks were latched onto by brewers desperate to win over young people who had snubbed beer and cider. But their drive has backfired, with drinks such as Hooper’s Hooch condemned for their appeal to teenagers. Amid calls for suc

When alcoholic lemonade first arrived in the UK from Australia last June, it seemed like an elixir to revive the UK drinks industry.

The long hot summer of ’95 fuelled strong sales of the new wonder potion. But it was only a matter of time before the defenders of the public good – pressure groups and politicians – wanted a piece of the action. Their objections increased when advertising for the drinks was launched in the pre-Christmas period.

They have mounted an effective campaign against the new wave of “alcoholic carbonates” or alcopops, which they allege are targeted at children through their taste, packaging, advertising and marketing.

So successful has the “anti” campaign been that the makers of alcoholic lemonade may be forced to undo some of the magic they have weaved through repackaging, reformulating or even renaming the drinks.

The brewers and cider makers naturally shrug off suggestions that they have targeted under-age drinkers with design and advertising for the drinks.

Richard Purdey, chairman of Merrydown, says: “It is completely wrong to say the imagery has been designed to appeal to under-age drinkers. We recognise the problem of under-age drinking, but these drinks are no different to cider – it is natural that 12 to 13-year-olds wish to imitate 18-year-olds, it’s nothing new.”

But cider rival Matthew Clark has said that it will not go down the same route. When chief executive Peter Aitkens revealed the company’s annual results last week, he said: “We won’t produce one because we do not agree with drinks being aimed at such young people.” A tacit admission from the drinks industry that the alcoholic carbonates are aimed at the young.

The drinks industry suffered more than most during the recession. Not only did drinkers stay at home rather than go to pubs, restaurants and bars, they also drank less alcohol. To make matters worse, consumers are escaping high UK alcohol duties by making trips to France to bring back car-loads of cheap booze. Brands face the growing encroachment of supermarket own-label products. Added to that, the drinks industry has lost out on up to 500m of youth expenditure, diverted into drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy.

Alcoholic lemonade represents a desperate attempt by the brewers to add some zest to their declining sales. A 1995 historical survey of the drinks industry in the Nineties by Mintel highlighted the changes in drinking behaviour and the fall in the number of potential young drinkers as well as the very real fall in sales. Between 1990 and 1994 total beer consumption fell from 6.3 billion to 5.7 billion litres in the UK (Zenith). Mintel forecast that the decline would continue to the end of the decade.

The new drinks at a stroke circumvent many of the industry’s problems. Classified as “made wine” for tax purposes, alcoholic lemonade has lower duty levels than beer, cider and wine.

It explains the attraction for Bass (Hooper’s Hooch); Carlsberg-Tetley (Lemonheads) and Merrydown (distributor of Two Dogs). Both Sainsbury’s and Tesco have also taken advantage of the opportunity with their own versions.

Alcoholic carbonates target young people who turn their noses up at the bitter taste of beer. In marketing terms, it also builds on the vogue for nostalgia by reminding the young and the old alike of their childhood – what better way to evoke it than through lemonade?

With the long, hot summer, alcoholic lemonades came into their own. Bass, which was still licking its wounds from losing out as the UK’s top brewer following Scottish & Newcastle’s takeover of Courage, was the first in the UK to bring out alcoholic lemonade – Hooper’s Hooch. The original alcoholic lemonade, Australia’s Two Dogs, was launched shortly afterwards through troubled cider maker Merrydown, which was also desperate for a boost after years of falling cider sales.

The development of alcoholic carbonates is a logical progression from other innovations in the drinks industry. The pressure group, Alcohol Concern, claims that the brewers launched dry beers and ice beers with a lighter taste to smooth young people’s transition from soft drinks to alcohol.

The brewers have always responded that these new, lighter-tasting beers are aimed at young women who do not like the taste of beer. Similarly, a range of mixers such as rum and coke have sought to provide alternatives to beer.

Manufacturers are certainly not aiming their products at children – a group with low spending power. But by targeting older teenagers, it is inevitable they will appeal to younger groups as well.

“The drinks are definitely aimed at the early over-18-year-old drinkers,” says one industry source. “The manufacturers are paranoid that they could kill this golden goose by being accused of encouraging under-age drinking. Several have dropped marketing ideas – for instance, links with certain magazines – for fear of being accused of this and having the drinks restricted.”

In modern marketing terms, age is less of a determiner in the purchase of products than “lifestyle” and aspirations – there are four-year-olds who wear Levi’s and Nike trainers.

But the makers of the drinks must have been aware that problems were in store for them when they launched their first alcopops. Maybe they even courted some controversy with their provocative ad campaigns like Hooper’s Hooch’s “one taste and you’re hooched” – a clear invitation to addiction – and the name Two Dogs itself is based on a foul-mouthed joke (See Diary page 20).

The Portman Group, set up by the seven leading drinks manufacturers to promote the idea of “sensible drinking”, is developing a code of conduct to limit the marketing of the products so that they don’t appeal to children. Portman Group director Dr John Rae says: “My view is that the companies did not think through carefully what the criticisms would be – a little more thought might have helped.”

But the group’s attempt to agree a code of conduct has already been slammed by Alcohol Concern. A spokesman says: “A code of conduct is a good idea, but there is a question mark over whether the Portman Group is the right body to do it. We would like it to be a widespread consultation including parents and teachers.”

The Portman Group has ruled out consultation, however, saying it will base its code on other existing regulations, such as the Advertising Standards Authority’s code which says drinks should not be advertised in a way that can appeal to children. But Rae plays down the possibility of the Portman Group’s findings leading to substantial changes or forcing manufacturers to drop the “lemonade” tag.

The group recommends that the drinks should not prompt a “reasonable” person to say they are aimed at under 18-year-olds. These stipulations, however, already apply, so any new code may turn out to be a damp squib.

There is little but anecdotal evidence to suggest an increase in children’s drinking over recent years, though anti-alcoholic soft drinks campaigners say the figures are likely to explode once the new products take root. The basis for this claim appears to be the same unhelpful anecdotal evidence.

But few people expect alcoholic carbonates to become an important part of the brewers’ product mix. Rather they will be a short-term craze lasting for a maximum of two years. In that time, the manufacturers will be able to claw back something of the beer sales they are losing to cross-border shopping, own-label brands and the general decline in drinking in pubs and bars.

The outcry over the marketing and advertising of the drinks should be a salutory warning to the industry that in their desperation, they could overstep the mark of what is publicly acceptable.

Whisky distillers are targeting the young; the spirits manufacturers have taken to advertising their products on television; and the industry has even managed to bludgeon the Chancellor into reducing whisky duty. Now their brewing cousins have launched the soft drinks with a heady kick.

The next interesting question is where the brewers will go next. Long-term change in the beer market means that they will have to continue their programmes of innovation. The industry, in its desperation, must be careful not to bring to life its nightmare – restrictive legislation. That will be the real lesson of the alcopops saga.

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