Alcohol industry in quandary over web marketing

The alcohol industry’s hangover seems only to get worse and worse. If it isn’t critics demanding a crackdown on sales promos, it’s doctors saying they shouldn’t be advertising at all. And in the online sphere, drinks brands may find little sanctuary in their own websites.

Camille Alarcon

The British Medical Association’s (BMA) demand this week that alcohol brands be banned from any kind of advertising, as well as from sponsoring sports and music events, had many either cheering in support or crying foul from many corners of society and industry.

While the BMA’s demands are unlikely to go further than the paper its report was published on, it does highlight another on- going investigation being conducted in the area of marketing communications.

The Digital Media Group is currently in discussions with a number of industry sectors to determine whether the Advertising Standards Authority should widen its remit to oversee the regulation of marcomms content on company websites.

For alcohol companies, the whipping boy of many lobbyists, there is a fear that there is not enough being done to regulate the content they feature on their sites.

The alcohol industry body Portman Group argues that there is already strict controls on this issue through its Code of Practice. While the ASA regulates all advertising complaints, the Portman Group regulates all forms of drinks producer marketing activity, including naming, packaging, sponsorship and websites.

Michael Thompson, Portman Group head of communications and external affairs says 70 products have been pulled from retailers’ shelves as a result of drinks companies failing to comply with their rulings on such issues.

But is this enough? Do enough consumers know exactly where to go to lodge such complaints? The ASA already regulates advertising, why not simply make it the one-stop shop for all marcomms issues?

Thompson concedes that depending on the recommendations due to be released by the Digital Media Group, it would not be altogether adverse to allowing the ASA to take on greater regulatory responsibility if it were to be in the best interests of consumers.

But company websites are only one online avenue marketers use to push their brands – the growing popularity of Twitter is but one example of the wider social media phenomenon that is unfolding.

Marketing Communication Consultants Association managing director, Scott Knox, says the current debate about alcohol advertising needs to be broadened, in particular when considering the “digital minefield”.

“There is so much content out there that can’t be regulated. If the government and bodies such as the BMA want to look at making the internet more regulated then they need to stop being so naive and stop making knee jerk reactions. A far wider approach needs to be taken on aspects of online and it needs to be a more collaborative approach,” Knox says.

For the Portman Group this means drawing up a new set of guidelines around digital marketing, from brand websites, to Bluetooth, to the use of social media. This is surely a step in the right direction, but in reality it is unlikely to be enough to placate the alcohol industry’s detractors.



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