Caught in a web of alcohol ads


As alcohol marketing pervades new spheres, a conference debates whether society has abdicated responsibility

THREE OUT of every 10 teenagers between the ages of 16 and 17 in Ireland has viewed an alcohol advertisement online, according to new research carried out by Behaviour and Attitudes, and commissioned by Action Alcohol Ireland.

When asked what their favourite television advertisements were, the same peer group listed five of their top 10 advertisements as alcohol-related. The survey results will be discussed at a conference in Dublin tomorrow, where both national and international experts will address wider issues of alcohol marketing and advertising.

There is speculation that the National Substance Misuse Strategy might advocate the ending of alcohol sponsorship in sport when it reports to the Government by the end of 2010. This follows similar moves in France in recent years, and coincides with an ongoing debate in the UK about whether to curtail the activities of the drinks industry in sponsorship, advertising and marketing.

The conference, Have We Bottled It?, will be debating whether or not society has abdicated responsibility when it comes to alcohol marketing. Speakers will also be looking at alcohol marketing in the digital age, the campaign for minimum pricing in Scotland, and how the drinks industry has responded.

“We already know from the Office of Tobacco Control that Irish 16- and 17-year-olds are spending €145 million a year on alcohol,” says conference organiser Fiona Ryan. “We’re hoping that by having this conference we can explore questions such as how alcohol marketing works and how can we reduce its impact, particularly on young people.”

Ryan, who is chief executive of Alcohol Action Ireland, outlines the case for addressing alcohol advertising. “Alcohol is one of the most heavily marketed products on our shelves. The alcohol market in Ireland is worth over €6 billion this year. Research has established that alcohol advertising increases the likelihood that young people will start drinking earlier, and those who are already drinking will drink more. The World Health Organisation, in its strategy to reduce alcohol-related harm, cites alcohol marketing and pricing as key action areas for delivering change.”

Tomorrow’s conference is seen as a chance to examine trends behind alcohol marketing and advertising. Organisers hope the debate will be key in formulating policy. In more general terms, Alcohol Action Ireland estimates the cost of alcohol-related harm in Irish society to be €3.7 billion a year – including €1 billion in health and €1 billion in public order and crime.

Last year, more than €68 million was spent on advertising both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks products using traditional advertising techniques. Diageo spent more than €18 million on advertising in 2009, while Heineken spent more than €11 million.

A recent report by the Working Group on Sports Sponsorship by the Alcohol Industry, convened by the Department of Health and Children, concluded that it “had not been possible” to establish the full financial extent of the existing sponsorship of sports events by the alcohol industry or the terms and lengths of existing contracts. The report, published in June, went on to state that the financial contribution to sport in Ireland is “very significant”.

However, any debate that focuses solely on traditional advertising models, such as television or print, is in danger of failing to tackle growing online marketing techniques.

Dr Patrick Kenny, a lecturer in the school of marketing in DIT, makes the point that younger people can now be easily accessed through their online activities. “From a marketer’s point of view, the online world is a dream, as you can get people to engage with your brand and start promoting it on Facebook or Twitter or whatever. If you go and ban TV advertising on its own, then I believe alcohol marketing budgets will be pushed into other areas, which are harder to regulate.”

Another participant, Prof Gerard Hastings, director of the Institute for Social Marketing in Scotland, and a leading expert on alcohol marketing, is also of the belief that we must look at alcohol advertising. “The attempt to get across moderation messages are being drowned out in a cacophony of messages in all sorts of media encouraging young people to consume alcohol in every possible way and time,” he says.

In recent years, particularly since the turn of the noughties, more responsible television campaigns and warnings (such as the “Don’t see a great night wasted” promotion), have begun to appear. Surely this is evidence of the drinks industry taking its responsibilities on board and pursuing a more health-conscious agenda?

“The only way to sort the problem in Ireland and Britain is by reducing per-capita consumption,” says Prof Hastings, “yet the industry doesn’t buy into that analysis at all. We should recognise corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes and advertisements for what they are. It is not Mother Teresa territory. They use these campaigns to improve and enhance corporate image with policymakers, so that they can be part of the solution. Diageo’s raison d’êtreis to enhance shareholder value, let’s not forget that.”

Have We Bottled It?takes place tomorrow at the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. More information from Alcohol Action Ireland on 01-8780610