Will TV be teetotal if Ofcom gets its way?

Alcohol advertisers are complaining that Ofcom’s proposed new rules will stymie their creativity, and possibly lead to a ban in all but name on small-screen drink commercials. By Sonoo Singh

In less than six weeks’ time, the face of television alcohol advertising – young, laddish and irreverent – could change forever. Regulator Ofcom’s stringent proposals on alcohol advertising, designed to encourage responsible drinking and curb under-age and binge-drinking, are expected to be unveiled in early November.

For alcohol advertisers this could spell an uncertain future. If Ofcom’s proposals, which relate solely to TV advertising, are given the go-ahead, it would mean an end to the use of celebrities, animated characters, slapstick humour, sexual innuendo and music that appeals to “young” people, as well as associations with sport and male bravado.

Advertisers concede that they are nervous about the proposed restrictions, which they say could limit the potential for effective alcohol advertising. One brewer says the proposals could lead to “a creative vacuum”. He asks: “What scope does it leave us if the use of sport, animation and music is absolutely prohibited?” He adds that although alcohol advertising has tended to trade on promises of social sophistication and sex, the industry has made an effort to offset this by setting up its own restrictive marketing code and by investing in responsible-drinking messages.

Diageo, the owner of the Smirnoff and Baileys brands, was one of the first drinks companies to start promoting a responsible-drinking message with an advertising campaign last summer telling consumers to drink in moderation. Others such as Bacardi-Martini and Scottish Courage have since followed.

Allied Domecq director of corporate affairs Stephen Whitehead argues that most companies have already cleaned up their acts by incorporating socially responsible messages in all their marketing communications. He claims that there is no research that proves that alcohol advertising directly encourages under-age or binge-drinking.

Even Ofcom’s consultation document admits: “It is notoriously difficult to probe the effect and influence of TV advertising because virtually everybody is exposed to it and it is just one among many possible factors including peer pressure, family influence and general cultural influences.”

However, to justify its proposed restrictions, Ofcom also cites qualitative studies which conclude that consumers consistently associate alcohol advertising with “having a good time” and with influencing young people’s ideas about alcohol in undesirable ways. The research also shows that consumers consider alcopop advertising to be closely aligned to youth culture because it tends to celebrate the mocking of the older generation.

Under existing TV advertising restrictions, ads are prohibited from showing anyone buying a round of drinks or drowning their sorrows in a solitary tipple. Ads are also prevented from showing a drink being downed too quickly or implying that it tastes good or has any beneficial effect.

The new restrictions will ban ads from giving the impression that drinking enhances masculinity or sexual prowess outright. In the past this activity had only been discouraged by banning any “association” of alcohol with sexual activity or prowess. The new rules will also prevent ads featuring any personality or cartoon character who might appeal to the under-18s. Any implication that drinking can improve the atmosphere of a social occasion will also be off-limits as will any association of alcohol with male bravado. However, Ofcom proposes that advertising should promote the consumption of alcohol as part of a “normal family life” rather than as a separate or exciting adult activity.

In its formal response to the proposals during the consultation period, Diageo argues that some of the restrictions are highly “flawed”. It also claims that they could potentially outlaw some of its Guinness campaigns which feature strong male protagonists responding positively to a challenge (MW last week).

Marketing director Andy Fennell says: “What concerns me most is the ambiguity in the proposals. Ofcom is going in the right direction when it comes to responsible drinking, but some of the proposals sound too simplistic. For instance, how do you measure what ‘strongly appeals to youth’? My biggest frustration is that for companies with a large portfolio of brands, the new regulations will mean time spent in interpreting the code rather than producing creative work.”

One grey area with regard to the proposals is TV sponsorship. Although the sponsor credits will be covered by the new rules, it is not clear whether or not brands will still be able to link up with programmes that play on sexual innuendo and social interaction, as Baileys did with its sponsorship of Sex and The City.

TBWA/London chief executive Andrew McGuinness agrees that the current proposals are ambiguous and have the potential to lead to bland advertising. “The regulator is trying to over-protect consumers,” he says. But, without humour or celebrity, there will be little left to entertain consumers, he protests. The agency produces the memorable Peter Kay ads for the John Smith’s brand.

The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) agrees that Ofcom is being “over-prescriptive and heavy-handed”. It warns that the new regulations could reduce the effectiveness of TV advertising to such an extent that advertisers’ spend will be diverted into other media, denying TV broadcasters valuable income. Alcohol advertisers spent &£124m on TV advertising last year, accounting for three per cent of total advertising revenue for all broadcasters, according to Ofcom.

The regulator admits that the &£14m spent on TV advertising by the ready-to-drink “alcopops” brands might be at “greatest risk”, if these proposals were to be implemented. Alcopops represent 11 per cent of the total amount spent by alcohol brands on TV advertising. Ofcom, however, argues that even in the unlikely event of broadcasters losing all alcopop revenue and 25 per cent of lager advertising, that would only represent a 0.8 per cent reduction in total TV advertising revenue.

The consultation period ended last week, but alcohol advertisers are hopeful that Ofcom will soften its approach appreciably after considering the industry’s response, before it unveils the final rules early in November.

Most alcohol companies claim to welcome the spirit of the new guidelines, as the proposals accord strongly with their own marketing codes. But one advertiser claims that the industry is only prepared to accept the new advertising code in the hope that it dissuades the Government from taking matters into its own hands by moving to an all-out ban on TV alcohol advertising.

In March 2004, the Cabinet Office, in a report on alcohol harm-reduction, threatened the introduction of legislation if the drinks industry failed voluntarily to desist from using inappropriate imagery linking alcohol to sport or sex. As a result of the report, Ofcom decided to tighten existing TV advertising restrictions.

Even if the drinks industry manages to persuade Ofcom to dilute its current proposals, it will have to watch its step if it is to fend off further legislation.

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