Do we only do it because our friends are doing it?

While ad bans pose little threat to the consumption of products such as alcohol and tobacco, banning public use could hit manufacturers hard. By Sean Brierley

As London on a summer evening is beginning to resemble a less-sophisticated version of Faliraki, on the first weekend of this month we decided to escape the swelling tide of Dooley’s Toffee & Vodka for some rural charm in a Cotswolds hotel.

On Saturday, as the sun shone on the manicured lawns, members of a wedding party rubbed, bling bling, with wealthy Brummies. They all gorged on Pimm’s, champagne and white wine. The atmosphere got more raucous. One couple started talking very loudly about their cars and the fact that the hotel’s snooker table was smaller than the one at home, while male wedding guests began to make lewd suggestions to the waitresses. We went back to our room to find a bleeding man sprawled on the floor. He was so pissed that he had fallen out of his wheelchair.

Binge drinking is the only pastime, apart from whingeing about the weather, that brings us together as a nation. It cuts across class, race and gender divides. Though what we drink may be different, the quantities are uniformly huge.

Drinking until you fall over has become a national pastime all the family can get involved in, especially in beer gardens, on holidays, and at home barbecues. Clearly, it is easier to get pissed now than it has ever been before and consequently it’s becoming a public policy issue.

Last week, Diageo announced that it would bring to the UK a US Smirnoff TV commercial that implores consumers to drink moderately. Though the idea of marketers trying to discourage consumers from consuming more of their product seems bizarre in this country, there is a good reason for the move: the campaign, created by J Walter Thompson New York, is aimed at policy-makers, not consumers. Pressure is growing for a ban on alcohol advertising, and alcohol companies need to defuse it.

Two weeks ago, the British Medical Association called for a ban on alcohol advertising on TV. BMA head of science Vivienne Nathanson said: “We want to target the inappropriate images that encourage binge drinking.” The first step should be to halt advertising on TV, she said, just as tobacco advertising was shunted off our screens before it was banned outright.

The fact that the BMA drew parallels with tobacco is pertinent. In 1962, the then minister of health Enoch Powell delivered a speech to the House of Commons about a report from the Royal College of Physicians making a direct link between smoking and cancer. Advertising was the most obvious target of the resulting health panic and because of the widespread belief that behaviour was conditioned by media manipulation, it was inevitable restrictions would follow.

In1965, the Postmaster General imposed a sectoral ban on all cigarette advertising on TV, seen as the most powerful medium, beamed straight into the home.

Unsurprisingly, the ban had little effect on tobacco consumption. Subsequently, millions of pounds were squandered on useless anti-smoking ad campaigns, enormous taxes were levied and, in February this year, a total ban was imposed in a last desperate attempt to reduce tobacco consumption. Like all of the preceding measures, the effects of the total ban will be marginal – there is no evidence that advertising bans cause major changes in consumption among adults.

Like tobacco, alcohol provides immediate, tangible benefits to consumers. Because of this they do not need advertising to encourage them to consume. Likewise, neither taxes nor scary public health ads will make them consume less.

Another factor tobacco and alcohol have in common is that they are both primarily consumed in social environments.

Social psychologists have documented that people have a powerful urge to do as their neighbours do – those who smoke or drink often do so when they see others doing so. The immediate social environment has much more effect on people than what they see in the media.

Public health authorities are starting to recognise the weakness of advertising bans when set against the power of regulating consumption.

The first salvo in this new battle was fired last week, when Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson argued that one of the best ways to restrict the consumption of harmful “social” products is to ban their use in public places.

“Moves to make public places and workplaces smoke-free would create a climate in which ‘no smoking’ is the social norm. It would help smokers to give up and it would remove the risk of passive smoking for millions of people including children and babies,” he said.

Donaldson has quoted statistics from Vancouver, where public smoking has been banned since 1995, and the proportion of people smoking has fallen from 22 per cent to 15 per cent.

The idea of consumption restrictions is gaining ground among opinion-formers. The Gov

ernment has come under attack from health groups for its plans to scrap licensing restrictions in order to boost tourism. They cite trials in Dublin, which reveal a significant increase in alcohol consumption when the laws were relaxed. A scientific report due in September is expected to advocate the imposition of tougher licensing laws in order to discourage binge drinking. It is also expected to contradict the BMA’s view by stating that advertising bans do not work.

Ironically, the discovery that advertising isn’t particularly powerful after all may be good news for the ad industry. However, a drive to re-regulate consumption could be very bad news for alcohol and tobacco manufacturers.

Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and author of the Advertising Handbook

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