When: May 2013 and onwards
Law stated as at: July 2013
The results of Ofcom’s latest research into alcohol advertising were published recently, showing a worrying increase in the amount of alcohol adverts seen by children each week from 2.7 in 2007 to 3.2 in 2011.
In an attempt to limit children from being exposed to alcohol advertising on television, Ofcom has asked the UK’s advertising regulators to review the current rules and assess whether the current limits need to be revised. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which ensures compliance with advertising rules and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP), which regularly reviews these rules, will carry out an in depth examination of whether the current regime is effective enough.
Current restrictions on alcohol advertising
The current rules prohibit alcohol advertising in programmes made for, or which are particularly likely to appeal to, under 18s.
In determining whether a programme is likely to appeal to children, broadcasters take into account factors such as experience and figures obtained from similar programmes in the past. These decisions can be very difficult to make and Ofcom has asked the ASA to investigate whether broadcasters have made the right decision. To the extent that judgments have been wrongly made, the ASA will be directed to take enforcement action to ensure that sufficient protections are put into place. BCAP has also been asked to consider how broadcasters’ methods for making such predictions can be improved.
A change in viewing habits?
Although Ofcom’s report shows a minimal increase in the amount of alcohol advertising seen by children, the percentage increase of alcohol ads in comparison to non-alcohol ads is significant.
This may be due to a number of factors, the most significant being that Ofcom’s report shows that there has been a shift in viewing by children away from channels with no or relatively less advertising, towards channels with more advertising, and this has increased their exposure to all forms of advertising, including alcohol.
Predictably, and given the popularity of social media and peer pressure amongst children, most older children (defined as 10-15 year olds), tend to watch adult programmes rather than children’s programmes. Importantly for the purposes of the ASA’s surveys however, although large numbers of children do watch such programmes, in the case of some hit TV shows, the number of children will often not constitute a sufficient enough proportion of the total audience to trigger the rules prohibiting alcohol advertising.
Although the 9pm watershed has proved to be effective to a certain extent (perhaps due to parents having stricter control over what younger children may watch), many older children bypass this and tend to watch most television after 9pm, when there is a greater concentration of alcohol advertising (and in fact just under 25% of alcohol adverts appear in the three hours from 9pm).
Finally, the number of television channels available has increased from 2007 to 2011, resulting in an increase in the total number of advertising slots available. In turn, the number of alcohol adverts increased from 418,000 in 2007 and 659,000 in 2011 (and rising as high as 748,000 in 2010).
The UK’s broadcasting authorities have been asked to focus their review around two questions, namely:
i. is the current approach to identifying which programmes should exclude alcohol advertising working properly; and
ii. does the current approach go far enough, given that a great deal of children’s viewing is to adult programmes in which alcohol advertising is permitted?
Ofcom has asked the ASA to identify any issues and take compliance action where necessary, with BCAP hot on its heels, working towards a deadline of October 2013, by which time it will have to set out its recommendations going forwards.
It will also be important to assess how alcohol adverts come to be put in spots with a high appeal to children, what corrective measures might make application of the rules more consistent, and whether there are circumstances in which it is impractical to apply the same set of rules across the board.
Why this matters
The government has faced much scepticism in its battle to reduce the exposure of children to alcohol, with many people of the opinion that parental attitudes (good or bad) will be the deciding factor as to the success of any such campaign. Whilst it is reasonably easy to predict which programmes may appeal to younger children, determining which programmes will be fashionable amongst older children will be much less straightforward, and controlling which programmes they watch, even as a parent, will be tricky.
Crucially, the programmes most appealing to children will be the programmes which are popular amongst the general (adult) public – at its peak the “X Factor” pulled in 11m viewers per episode, for example – and will be precisely the place where alcohol producers will be most keen to secure advertising spots.
Although a total ban on alcohol advertising would appear to an overly restrictive solution, in light of the government’s relative success with its campaigns against junk food advertising, for example, measures may be set to get stricter.