Alcohol industry goes on offensive over call to ban social media marketing

The Institute of Social Marketing (ISM) has come under fire from the alcohol industry again after a report by one of its doctors led to calls for a ban on alcohol promotion on social media sites.

WKD website
WKD website

Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAPP), described as an “independent medical advocacy organisation” set up to raise awareness of alcohol-related harm in Scotland, says it wants a complete ban on alcohol promotion on social networking sites after claiming some brand websites contain material that “clearly contravenes the spirit” of existing advertising rules.

SHAPP has also called for brand websites to be subject to Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) codes, regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority, although ultimately it demands an end to the current self regulatory system, preferring regulation that is “independent of the alcohol and advertising industries”.

The organisation’s recommendations follow a report by Dr Oona Brooks, research assistant at the ISM. Dr Brooks studied the marketing activities, via their own websites and on social media platforms, of four brands – WKD, Lambrini, Smirnoff and Carling – and reviewed them against the “CAP Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing Code”.

As well as claiming that all four alcohol brands’ websites and three of the four’s social networking sites “contained material which contravenes the spirit of CAP codes”, the study challenges the “questionable” age verification systems used to enter the sites. It also claims to have found advertisements previously banned by the ASA being streamed on Youtube.

Dr Bruce Ritson, chairman of SHAAP, says: “The extent to which alcohol producers are now using digital media to promote alcohol is a matter of serious concern due to the youth appeal of these sites, the difficulties associated with enforcing age restrictions, the relative lack of regulation and the sheer volume of promotional messages.”

The SHAPP report echoes some of the concerns expressed in the Health Committee’s January report that also questioned the suitability of the current rules governing online marketing. Doctor’s body the British Medical Association has called for a complete ban on advertising alcohol.

Currently, all paid-for banner and click advertisements are regulated by the ASA, while alcohol industry body The Portman Group regulates all other forms of drinks producer marketing, including brand websites with suspected contraventions referred to an independent complaints panel.

The ASA’s remit is soon to be extended to include all forms of online advertising following a recommendations from the Advertising Association to extend the CAP Code.

David Poley, Portman Group chief executive says the report’s author “doesn’t seem to understand how marketing is regulated”.

“If SHAAP has specific concerns, they should complain to the Independent Complaints Panel to let it decide if there is a problem that needs addressing,” he adds.

Dr Brooks’ report follows a January study by the ISM’s Professor Gerard Hastings that claimed that companies are “pushing the boundaries” of the advertising code of practice. Industry bodies rounded on Professor Hastings’ report, accusing it of resorting to “slurs and innuendos” and being full of “ill-founded distortions”.

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