The Portman Group has published a new guide aiming to stop alcohol brands targeting underage consumers or encouraging harmful drinking through digital marketing. Can a socially responsible route be followed? Lee Rubin takes a sober look at the guide.
Who: The Portman Group
When: October 2009
Law stated as at: November 2009
The Portman Group ("PG") is a trade group whose members comprise the purveyors of most of the leading alcoholic drink brands in the UK. It administers a Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks.
The PG has no legal powers over drinks manufacturers and cannot impose financial penalties on those who break its Code, but since its introduction in 1996 its Code and the decisions of its Independent Complaints Panel have grown in authority and UK drinks companies, whether members or not, tend to take notice of its pronouncements and decisions.
The PG has published a Guide that aims to stop alcohol brands targeting underage consumers or encouraging harmful drinking through their digital marketing. The Guide, titled 'The Responsible Marketing of Alcoholic Drinks in Digital Media' advises companies on how to stay within the Portman Group and the UK "CAP" Advertising Codes administered by the Advertising Standards Authority.
Although the new Guide does not represent a new regulatory code, it instead clarifies and offers advice how the rules apply in the digital arena. The PG therefore strongly recommends that companies follow the guidelines when undertaking digital marketing activity and that the new guide should be read in conjunction with the regulatory codes.
Regulation of digital marketing
Digital marketing, like all marketing, of alcoholic drinks is regulated by the PG's Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks (http://www.portmangroup.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/assets/documents/4th%20Ed%20of%20Code.pdf) and the CAP Code (http://www.asa.org.uk/asa/codes/cap_code/CodeIndex.htm) administered by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
The ASA and the PG effectively regulate all digital marketing by drinks producers in the UK to ensure that it meets exactly the same high standards that apply to marketing in traditional media. One key area where the ASA currently does not regulate is brand website content outside promotions and paid for banners. The ASA remit also does not extend to packaging. In both these communication categories the PG does have jurisdiction.
Guidance on particular issues
The new Guide is focussed on issues of alcohol social responsibility and sets out guidance on the promotion of responsible drinking. It provides general guidance on assessing the suitability of a website as a medium for alcohol marketing and the identification of company involvement. The Guide also sets out more detailed guidance on particular issues, several of which are explored below.
Targeting of 'direct' digital marketing communications
For 'direct' communications (i.e. communications sent directly to a specific recipient), it is inappropriate knowingly to include under-18s within the audience. Therefore when communicating direct digital marketing (including e-mail, SMS, MMS, WAP Push, Twitter, etc.) companies are strongly encouraged to adopt the following guidelines:
- direct digital marketing communications should be sent only to consumers who have affirmed (made in writing or via electronic media) their date of birth to show that they are aged over 18;
- if the consumer has affirmed that they are over 18 but not provided their full date of birth, a company may send the consumer a direct communication to obtain the full date of birth and only then can the company send a direct marketing communication;
- over 18 age confirmation details can be provided by third parties, but the onus is on the company to ensure that the third party has appropriate procedures in place to obtain this information; and
- while a company might not retain proof of an individual's electronic age affirmation, it should be able to demonstrate when an individual provided that affirmation.
Deterring under 18s from accessing brand websites
An age affirmation page (AAP) is a website landing page which requires visitors to confirm they are of a certain age before they can enter the website. In order to ensure that the age affirmation process us as effective as possible at deterring under-18 access, while minimising the inconvenience to visitors aged over 18, companies are strongly encouraged to adopt the following guidelines:
- all first-time visitors to the site should be required to navigate the AAP, unless they are being referred from a website which itself is age-protected to a similarly rigorous standard;
- the method of age affirmation should require the visitor actively to input their date of birth rather than allow access through clicking a default option;
- if access is blocked because the visitor enters an age/date below 18, they should be given an appropriate message and/or directed to an appropriate alternative site;
- repeat visitors may be invited to set up a 'Remember me' option to facilitate easier access to the site in the future but this invitation should be accompanied by a reminder to the visitor to consider the appropriateness of this option if the computer is shared with someone under 18; and
- AAP's should carry a Nanny Tag, (a hidden label, known as meta data, that describes the site's content) which can be recognised by software used by parents to control web browsing activity of their children.
User-generated content on company websites
User-generated content (UGC) that is on a third-party's website and over which the company has no control is probably outside the scope of the Guide (and outside the scope of the CAP and PG Codes) even if it serves to promote a particular alcoholic brand. However, UGC that appears on a company's website is within the scope of the PG's Code and the new Guide.
UGC can be managed in two ways:
Pre-moderation means that the UGC is approved by or on behalf of the producer before it appears on the website, thereby eliminating the risk of inappropriate content on the website.
Post-moderation means that the user is allowed to upload UGC without it being checked in advance. To help ensure that the post-moderated UGC meets the high standard that are expected in alcohol marketing and to guard against under 18s inappropriately featuring in or contributing UGC, companies are strongly recommended to adopt the following policies:
- only registered members if a website should be able to contribute UGC to that website;
- to become a registered member, visitors should be required to complete a registration form including name, e-mail address and date of birth; membership should be restricted to over 18s;
- clear guidelines should be given on what is acceptable versus unacceptable content. Terms and conditions of membership should include a requirement to adhere to these guidelines and every time a member contributes UGC they should be required to confirm that it meets the guidelines;
- the UGC section of the website should be monitored at least once every working day and inappropriate UGC should be removed as soon as possible and at the latest within 24-48 hours;
- registered members who deliberately post inappropriate or offensive content should lose the benefits of registration and be un-registered (and therefore be unable to post further un-moderated UGC) for a reasonable period of time; and
- 'Alert Administrator' buttons should be provided in prominent editorial positions to give users the opportunity to notify the producer of any content they consider is unacceptable. An e-mail address should be provided for this purpose which should be monitored on at least a daily basis and inappropriate content removed within 24-48 hours of the email being received.
Use of images of under-25s on company websites
The PG's Code of Practice states that as a rule "a drink, its packaging and any promotional material or activity should not in any…way incorporate images of people who are, or look if they are, aged under-25…". The application of this rule significantly restricts a company's ability to engage with the 18-24 year old consumers through digital marketing. With the rise of internet marketing and it becoming relatively common for companies to feature images of real consumers within marketing material, there is a risk of inadvertently allowing under-18s, or people who may be mistaken for under-18s, being shown drinking on websites. The advice on the use of images of under-25s on brand websites, including in UGC, is as follows:
- except for the exceptions noted below, anybody shown on brand websites should be, and look, over-25;
- images of 18-24 years olds may be shown provided that the image does not show them in a context which associated them with drinking so there is no suggestion that they have just consumed, are consuming, or about to consumer alcohol;
- under-18s should not be shown in a y marketing material unless it is an incidental context and there is absolutely no suggestion that they are alcohol consumers; and
- companies are fully entitled to apply their own stricter standards to marketing material, e.g. to disallow images of anyone ages under-18 or under-25 in any circumstances.
Images of consumers on websites and association with social success or drunkenness
It is natural that drinks producers want to associate their brand with consumers having fun and may therefore want to display photographs showing consumers enjoying themselves and with the brand prominently positioned. It is also the case that inviting people who are drinking to pose for a photograph may cause a certain amount of 'playing-up' for the camera with funny faces and poses. There is a danger, however, that the effect of the resultant image is to imply close bonding, popularity and a good time, all very closely linked to the brand in question. As this is likely to breach the PG's Code which disallows any suggestion that the consumption of a drink can lead to social success or popularity, companies should bear in mind the following:
- it is acceptable to portray drinking as sociable but beware of images which appear to show an exaggerated good time;
- consider the pose, facial expressions and interactions of the people in the photograph and what this says about the brand; and
- when assessing the acceptability of a particular photograph, consider whether consumers would have posed in the same way if they had not been drinking, and if not, this would imply that the alcohol is an essential ingredient in the good time portrayed and therefore the photograph should not be displayed.
With regard to drunkenness, as noted above, inviting people who are drinking to pose for a photograph may encourage a certain amount of 'playing up' for the camera. This can, however, leave the image open to ambiguous interpretation. With this in mind companies should avoid:
- images showing a lack of inhibition as they may be interpreted as showing drunkenness;
- images showing consumers apparently being supported, for example with their arm slung around another’s shoulders, as this might indicate drunkenness; and
- images of consumers looking bleary-eyed.
Applications, other downloadable content and streamed content
Downloadable content is content, including applications, which can be saved to the user’s hard drive. To protect against downloadable and streamed content being seen by under-18s, companies are strongly encouraged to adopt the following policies:
- access to downloadable content, including applications, should be subject to age affirmation procedures of a similar standard to those that apply in respect of brand websites. Streamed content should, where possible, also be subject to such a procedure;
- all downloadable content should be subject to a Download Advice Notice which should advise a visitor wishing to download content that the content is intended/made available only for adults aged over-18 and advising that such content should not, following download, be forwarded or otherwise made available to those under-18;
- the format of the Download Advice Notice may be at the discretion of the company and may appear either on the face of the page from which the download is offered, or as a pop-up or similar click-dependent advice; and.
- all downloadable content in video format, and all streamed video content that can be accessed without going through an age-affirmation procedure, should have inserted or embedded at the start a pre-roll film advising the viewer that the content is intended for viewers aged 18 and over.
Why this matters:
In this increasingly popular marketing channel, one of the greatest challenges is identifying who is using digital marketing and how old they are. Although this is a fast moving area presenting new opportunities and fresh dilemmas for marketers, producers must meet the same high standards digitally as in other areas of marketing.
Digital marketing of alcohol brands has also come under fire from MPs on the House of Commons health committee this year, who have questioned the effectiveness of current regulation. This Guide goes some way in presenting the guidelines that will allow companies to follow a relevant and a socially responsible route.
The full text of the Guide can be found at: http://www.portmangroup.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/assets/documents/DigitalMarketingGuidelines.pdf.