A bum rap?

A summer of booze-fuelled misbehaviour by young Britons abroad, and a slew of doom-laden statistics about alcohol consumption, have put pressure on those who market drinks and holidays. But is our apparent descent into loutish alcoholism their

It is turning into a long, hot summer for marketers in the holiday and alcohol sectors. Accusations are flying that they are fuelling rowdy, lewd and anti-social behaviour among British youth through high-pressure marketing techniques, and there are suggestions that the Government could further restrict their activities.

Riotous behaviour by young British holidaymakers at the Greek resort of Faliraki on Rhodes has led local police to ban pub crawls in the town and discourage bars from selling large rounds of drinks. They have started arresting holidaymakers for lewd behaviour such as nudity in public and say they will act to stamp out drunken revelry. Last week, they arrested a number of holiday reps from British tour companies Club 18-30, 2wenties and Olympic Holidays for leading pub crawls, though the reps were found not guilty and were soon released. The police began imposing zero-tolerance policies following the death of a teenager who was stabbed in a brawl in the town three weeks ago. Since then, another young British man has died of a suspected cocaine overdose and there has been a string of arrests of holidaymakers caught stripping off in public.

Bacchanalian Britain

Whether marketing helps to create an atmosphere in which anti-social drunken behaviour is acceptable is a complex question. Many in the industry would argue that it is the individuals themselves and the UK’s “hard drinking culture”, rather than brand owners, which should bear responsibility for whipping youngsters up into a frenzy. It is an issue that goes to the heart of whether marketing influences, or simply reflects, social behaviour and attitudes.

While the marketing of youth holidays is in the dock for encouraging rowdy and lewd behaviour, alcohol marketers are also facing accusations that they are indirectly promoting anti-social drunkenness through their advertising and promotional techniques.

The Prime Minister’s Downing Street Strategy Unit is preparing to report on its “harm reduction” strategy for alcohol. A draft of the National Alcohol Strategy is to be published within weeks. During the consultation stage of the report, the marketing of alcohol has been attacked for glamorising drinking and promoting drunkenness.

Club 18-30, which has carved out a unique position as the leading holiday youth brand, denies suggestions that it encourages anti-social behaviour among the 110,000 young people it takes away each year. “We would refute those allegations,” says a spokesman. “We do encourage people to have a fantastic holiday and 99.9 per cent of our guests manage to do that. We advise people at welcome meetings of the kind of behaviour that is not acceptable to the local community.” However, this contrasts with statements that appear on the Club 18-30 website, such as: “Nothing is sacred. If it is going to be a good laugh then we are in.” Reinforcing the link with alcohol, there is an immediate pop-up ad for Vodka Kick, leading to a Club VK website.

Reports from people who have holidayed with the company suggest that the reps egg people on to lewd behaviour, and encourage drunkenness. ITV television series Club Reps shows some of the outrageous antics of British holidaymakers, and the programme itself has been blamed for further fuelling the riotous behaviour. Insiders say that the programme has boosted visitor numbers for Club 18-30, as do all reports of misbehaviour associated with the company.

The marketing of Club 18-30 appears to prepare people for a wild time and focuses on sexual innuendo. The spokesman insists the ads are “tongue in cheek” and are understood as such by the brand’s target market.

Who drives them to drink?

As to whether the marketing of alcohol encourages problem drinking, there is little research showing a link. A spokesman for Alcohol Concern says: “In terms of evidence, it is hard to get research that shows a direct correlation between advertising and marketing and problem drinking. But there is research to show that drinking is going up among young people, particularly young women. We feel there is a correlation between that rise in consumption and the way the drinks trade has marketed products and settings to appeal to young people and women.”

Alcohol Concern quotes research from the Office of National Statistics, which shows that the proportion of women drinking over 14 units of alcohol a week (considered an acceptable limit and equal to about seven pints of beer) increased by 50 per cent between 1988, when it was ten per cent of the female population, and 1998, by which time 15 per cent of women were drinking to excess.

The pressure group also quotes figures showing that young people are drinking larger amounts of alcohol. The average amount drunk by 11- to 15-year-olds in 1990 was 0.8 units per week, but by 1998 this had risen to 1.6 units, according to a study by Goddard & Higgins. Among 11- to 15-year-olds who drink, average consumption rose from 5.3 units in 1990 to 10.4 units in 2000, although it fell back in 2001, to 9.8 units. There is also some evidence of a leap in the number of 15- to 16-year-olds taking part in binge-drinking sessions.

These rises come after a concerted effort over the past 15 years by the drinks industry to target younger drinkers and women. Pubs have been refurbished to make them more “female-friendly” and the industry has been trying to find drinks that appeal to women, beyond white wine and Babycham.

Brewers tried out ice beers, which use a freezing process to take away the beery taste and are designed to appeal to people who do not normally like the taste of beer – namely younger people and women. There has been the development of alcopops, which achieved popularity with youngsters, and the more adult-oriented “flavoured alcoholic beverages” such as Smirnoff Ice, which was so popular Diageo formulated a variant aimed at men. And just last week, ad agency Mother was appointed to give a marketing push to the peach drink Archers, a favourite among young women. Marketers have also cleverly used sponsorship of television shows, such as Baileys’ sponsorship of Sex and the City, to promote their brands.

Getting in the round

The industry’s own self-regulatory body, the Portman Group, declines to comment on whether it believes there is a link between the changing face of alcohol marketing and the rise in drunkenness, but drinks marketers say that the advertising for alcohol brands is designed to get people to choose the brand at the bar, rather than to encourage them to drink more.

One advertising executive says: “We are trying to get on to the list of four or five brands that people will drink. The pub environment is a very hard place to make a decision about which brand you want, you are massively pressurised. We want to get on that shortlist of acceptable brands.”

He says that encouragement to indulge in binge-drinking is down more to the sales promotions on offer at the drinking location, such as happy hours, two-for-one deals or other incentives to increase consumption. This issue is also coming under scrutiny and Faliraki’s bar-keepers are taking flak for such promotions in pursuit of profits.

Ireland has just introduced legislation banning “happy hour” type promotions in an effort to tackle binge-drinking, and pub licensees could face tough fines if they allow drunkenness. Scotland’s Nicholson Committee report, drawn up by Sheriff Principal Gordon Nicholson, also proposes stricter controls on “irresponsible promotional activities” which could cause anti-social behaviour. Steve Booth, creative director at design company Brewer Riddiford, which has worked on Scottish Courage brands, points out that the fact that different brands are trying to become part of the drinker’s repertoire could add to drunkenness, since if successful it may lead people to mix their drinks during a session.

On a more general note, he adds: “There is so much insecurity wrapped up in drinking and the image young people want to project. They are not sure what they should and shouldn’t be drinking. They are thinking: ‘What am I? What brands do I want to be associated with?’ That is where marketing is fundamental.”

You are what you drink?

In the cases of both alcohol and youth holidays, the marketers are providing young people – often confused about who they are and how they should behave – with ready-made identities. If the young are encouraged to construct their self-images through the alcohol brands they drink, then it is not surprising if they see themselves in terms of their drinking. Does this mean that the more they drink, the stronger their identities become?

There is a saying in beer marketing that people “drink the advertising” which implies that since so many of the brands taste so similar, people choose them according to which image they feel they most want to project to their peers. But if drinking Foster’s allows people to see themselves as humorous, then they may believe that the more of it they drink, the more humorous they become.

The drinks industry can point to no research into the way its marketing and advertising affects problem drinking, which could be considered remiss, given that it researches so many other aspects of people’s relationships to their brands. Some companies, such as Diageo, are to launch sensible drinking campaigns – though to be credible such work must not come across as half-hearted and reactive, given the amount of money spent on promoting alcoholic drinks in the first place.

The Government seems intent on placating those who object to its plans to introduce 24-hour drinking and the marketing and advertising of alcohol is a visible and high-profile target. The Government may find it hard to resist blaming the brands, whether the rise in problem drinking is their fault or not.

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