Genevieve Hargrave, VicHealth's Senior Project Officer for Alcohol and Tobacco, discusses the effects of advertising alcohol in the digital space.
At a recent Friday night out I declared that I didn’t want to get too messy and was not drinking, as I had plans for the weekend. I expected a few jokes at my expense but I didn’t anticipate the ensuing campaign that was waged to make me change my mind, drink up and join the pack. Without my beer goggles on I saw clearly how central alcohol is to our social lives. I also realised that it is assumed that if we go out we drink, and if we drink we’ll probably get drunk.
And while we stumble about under the influence, the picture is getting clearer – when it comes to alcohol, young people (aged 18–24 years) are really susceptible to being influenced, are taking the most risks, and are getting hurt. Over 260 young people aged 15–24 die each year as a result of risky alcohol consumption.1
"So what do we need to do to make it okay to enjoy a night out without having a drink?"
To make it less acceptable to drink to excess, and to talk about the safety and health risks associated with drinking alcohol?
A start might be disrupting the steady flow of messages that say it’s okay to drink too much, that normalise heavy drinking and unhealthy, unacceptable behaviour.
A quick look at the Facebook pages of a few large, familiar alcohol brands reveals that they are cleverly inserting themselves into every aspect of life for young Australians. As their ‘friends’ we are offered alcoholic popsicle recipes, free merchandise, invitations to events and giveaways to international festivals.
Brands are cleverly harnessing the power of brand advocates, challenging what’s seen as socially acceptable and making anti-social behaviour the norm. They tell us it’s okay to drink on a ‘school night’ and suggest adding ‘slurp’ to the familiar Cancer Council ‘slip slop slap’ slogan. And they know that if we see our friends are doing it, probably we will do it too.
So are we okay with alcohol brands promoting a culture of heavy drinking? And whose job is it to set boundaries for the promotion of alcohol in Australia?
The ABAC Responsible Alcohol Marketing Code covers the content of alcohol marketing and promotion in Australia. The code is quasi-regulatory, which means that it is mostly governed by alcohol companies. That's a bit like a having football match contested by lions versus bunnies, and putting the lions in charge of setting the rules and choosing the umpires.
"Also, the code is not a law: it’s not mandatory – and not all alcohol companies have signed up. How could this system be independent and effective?"
The ABAC code prohibits the portrayal of consumption of alcohol as causing or contributing to the achievement of personal, business, social, sporting, sexual, or other success. As in other areas of advertising, alcohol brands may not mislead by implying that by adding alcohol, Joe Ordinary will enjoy instant success, popularity and the admiration of his peers. I can confirm from my night of abstinence that when you're drunk you may feel like a hero, but you are actually a slurring, rambling, stumbling, drink spilling, obnoxious bore and a danger to yourself and others.
In 2015 the ABAC received 133 complaints about ads for alcohol. Only 7 complaints led to ads being removed. One can only wonder if this is a reasonable response to the community asking 133 times for a review of an alcohol promotion.
Recent examples of promotions that attracted complaints that were dismissed include a Facebook post that comprised an image of a shed lined with 9,000 empty VB cans and a response comment from VB commending the shed’s architects on their (drinking) efforts and promising to deliver a few slabs as a reward.
Like we’ve seen with Uber, the law is usually trying to catch up with technology. We know alcohol companies are spending more than ever before on digital advertising, so we need to ask if ABAC is keeping up with the changing digital marketing landscape.
ABAC claims to be relevant and evolving with digital marketing. In November 2013 ABAC published a guide, the Best Practice for the Responsible Marketing of Alcohol Beverages in Digital Marketing, which it also described as “advice” and “non-binding”. It seems that advertisers are not exactly taking its advice to heart. A quick survey of a few big brands’ Facebook pages found that the requirements i.e. confirm the age of users, moderate user-generated content and point to drink responsibly sites, seem to be ignored.
So what can be done to better protect young people from inappropriate alcohol adverting on social media? To protect our team of bunnies, maybe it is time to say that the lions can’t set the rules or choose the umpire and instead put someone totally independent in charge. Let’s have alcohol industry marketing behaviour regulated by someone independent to the alcohol industry.
In the days following this blog being posted, we were contacted by ABAC’s Management Committee, who had concerns with some of the content of the post. Based on their letter, we have changed the term ‘self-regulatory’ to ‘quasi-regulatory’ within the blog post. After careful consideration of other issues raised by ABAC, we have decided not to make any further changes to the blog post.
We would like to clarify the blog post does not intend to be critical of the staff, Management Committee or the experts that support the operation of the ABAC Scheme. The intention of the blog post is to highlight the deficiency in the ability of a ‘quasi-regulatory’ system to effectively regulate alcohol advertising in Australia and properly protect our children and young people from the potential harms associated with inappropriate alcohol adverting.
To access ABAC publications visit http://www.abac.org.au/publications/, complaints regarding alcohol advertising can be lodged at https://adstandards.com.au/lodge-complaint
1Young people and alcohol, the role of cultural influences, 2008 research by the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction at Flinders University, published by DrinkWise Australia Ltd.