EC must review restrictive laws

If Anheuser-Busch successfully challenges France’s Loi Evin, it could force the EC to reconsider whether an individual country has the right to curb advertising freedom. John Shannon reports. John Shannon is president of Grey International.

Anheuser-Busch’s decision to challenge the legality of France’s anti-alcohol advertising Loi Evin is a significant development for the European advertising community.

So concerned is the mighty US brewer about the damaging effects of the restrictive law on its 1998 sponsorship of the World Cup in France, it has lodged a formal complaint to the European Commission.

There is, perhaps, nothing surprising about the company’s bullish stance. After all, the Loi Evin has already achieved notoriety among drinks companies for its ability to hamper cross-border communications programmes.

What is interesting, however, is the sympathetic response Anheuser-Busch’s complaint appears to be receiving in Brussels. Indeed, a number of media commentators and Brussels decision-makers now believe that locally conceived advertising laws are increasingly posing a major threat to free and fair trade. The consensus is that as a result of the complaint, the Loi Evin may well be ruled contrary to European law.

Nor is this example of a more favourable attitude in Brussels to the communications needs of the international business community an isolated case. It was also reflected in the European Commission’s recent acknowledgement that Greece’s controversial ban on all toy advertising was contrary to the Community’s founding principle of fair competition across member states.

While many battles doubtless remain to be fought to ensure that Europe’s communications industry retains its right to freedom of commercial speech, these latest developments suggest that a wave of realism about the needs of the business community may be seeping through the corridors of Brussels.

They also reflect a growing recognition that advertising enables companies to operate effectively within a free competitive environment and that it is central to every company’s power to generate revenue.

The advertising industry has long accepted that by enjoying the right to commercial freedom of speech, as set out in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, it has a responsibility to maintain the highest standards of integrity.

Against this background, representatives of the advertising community have consistently argued in favour of self-regulation and against the artificial and damaging restrictions unilaterally im-posed by member states.

The positive light in which Anheuser-Busch’s position is being assessed suggests that industry lobbying has finally begun to pay dividends.

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