The past week has seen a 200-page Health Committee report call for an overhaul of advertising regulations as a “solution” to under-age drinking, while Conservative Party leader David Cameron has threatened new advertising laws.
Speaking at a Demos thinktank event, Cameron rounded on the advertising industry, suggesting that kids are “being sold the idea that the path to happiness lies through excessive consumption”. He warned of new regulation outlawing “premature sexualisation” and “excessive commercialisation” unless things improved.
“It’s high time the children’s market and advertisers show much more restraint in the way they operate,” he added.
Agnes Nairn, an academic and expert in marketing to children, says there are holes in current regulation, but digital marketing could be “almost impossible” to police.
Though the political spotlight has been placed firmly on advertising, industry sources argue politicians are in danger of being “misled”.
“Westminster doesn’t appear to know what [advertising] law there is,” says Ian Twinn, public affairs director at advertisers’ body ISBA. “We’re fairly confident that what we have now is very tight,” he adds, labelling the Health Committee report, specifically, as “badly produced prejudice”.
Academics have also criticised some of the evidence used to inform policy on advertising. Tim Ambler, honorary senior research fellow at the London Business School, says there is “no evidence” to suggest that advertising is part of the country’s drink problem.
Ambler even suggests that advertising is “part of the solution”. In a paper just published in World Economics, he argues for “more marketing, not less”.
“The consumer’s spending power commands less alcohol if the advertising persuades them to buy the premium brands. So, marketing the higher-priced brands actually works to reduce excessive consumption.”
Last week the cross-party Health Committee concluded that the current system of controls on alcoholic promotion and advertising is “failing to protect the young people it is intended to protect”.
One of the committee’s principal recommendations is for the regulation of alcohol promotion to be “completely independent of the alcohol and advertising industries”.