It all started with ITC research into alcohol ad controls, but OFCOM has now completed the process and recommended much stricter rules for alcohol ads on TV. We look behind the headlines.
Where: Ofcom House
When: July 2004
Following commissioned research by Ofcom's predecessor the ITC assessing the effectiveness of current rules on broadcast alcohol ads and spurred on by a paper released by the Cabinet Office in March 2004 which identified TV advertising of alcohol as one of many potential factors relevant to its wider strategy on alcohol harm reduction, Ofcom has now published draft revised rules on TV advertising of alcoholic drinks, with a deadline for responses to the proposals set at 24th September 2004.
Can ads make a difference?
Ofcom notes that it is difficult to prove the actual influence of TV advertising because virtually everybody is exposed to it and it is just one amongst many possible factors. However the evidence gathered by the research commissioned, "although tentative," suggest that alcohol advertising can have some impact on young people's attitudes to alcohol, albeit smaller than other cultural and family influences. In other areas the research evidence indicates that some of the existing rules are poorly focussed and/or too general to be effective.
The current rule states that ads must not imply that drinking is essential to social success or acceptance or that refusal is a sign of weakness. Ofcom notes that this has not always successfully prevented suggestions that alcohol contributes to the success of a social occasion (as opposed to being essential to it) nor has it prevented associating boisterous partying with alcohol brands.
Accordingly a new rule is proposed whereby ads must not suggest that alcohol can contribute or is essential to social success, acceptance or confidence or that refusal is a sign of weakness. There should also not be any suggestion that the success of a social occasion depends on the presence or consumption of alcohol. The aim here is to avoid links with boisterous behaviour.
Bravado, aggression etc
The current rule is that ads must not link drinking with daring, toughness, bravado, aggression or anti-social behaviour.
Up until now this rule has been interpreted as not applying unless the behaviour in question has been preceded by drinking alcohol. Because of this the rule has not prevented TV advertising building undesirable associations into brand images, in the view of Ofcom.
The new suggested rule there is that ads must not associate drinking with daring, toughness, bravado, aggression or anti-social behaviour, nor suggest that drinking alcohol is a sign of maturity, masculinity, femininity etc.
The current rule is that ads must not suggest that alcohol can contribute to sexual success or that drinking can enhance sexual attractiveness.
This rule has been interpreted as not applying unless the act of drinking is directly linked to a scene of romantic or sexual success. The result in the view of Ofcom has been a great deal of very sexy advertising in which the advertised brand is not actually drunk before or during the interaction.
The proposal here therefore is that two new rules be introduced. One requires that ads must not associate alcohol with sexual activity or success or imply that alcohol can enhance sexual attractiveness.
The other new rule requires that alcoholic drinks must not be advertised "in a context of sexual suggestiveness, flirtation or other sexual interactions."
The current rule 11.8.1(e) is that ads must not suggest that alcohol has therapeutic qualities nor offer it as a stimulant, sedative or tranquilliser. Ofcom proposes a change here to widen this out so that "mood changing" or "boosting confidence" is not linked to alcohol. Another new rule proposed is that there must be no suggestion that anyone might find drinking alcohol irresistible.
The current rule is that ads must not show, imply or encourage immoderate drinking.
Ofcom is concerned that this has allowed the creation of an atmosphere of abandonment and excess, for example by the way bottles are handled or spirits are sloshed liberally around a crowded party room. Now discontinued advertising featuring a certain well known superannuated footballer comes to mind.
A new proposed rule here therefore is that "alcoholic drinks must be handled and served in a restrained and responsible way".
Currently the rules require that Ads must not appeal particularly to people under 18. Ofcom is concerned that these have not had the desired effect. The proposal here is to make it quite clear that alcoholic drinks must not be presented as other than a mature, adult pleasure and the style and content of advertisements must reflect this.
This is followed by some quite full notes which presumably are intended to accompany the new rule when published. These indicate for instance that ads are least likely to comply if for example they include personalities who are likely to have credibility amongst, or be popular with people under 18, use animation, cartoons etc which are likely to be of interest to children and teenagers, include animals other than incidentally, include music or styles or music which are likely to be popular with children or teenagers or feature sport. Ads should also avoid jokes, situations and behaviour of types typically associated with children or teenagers. Examples here are practical jokes, slapstick, outwitting authority, ignoring responsibilities, generation gap references or puerile behaviour.
By way of a sop to industry in this context, Ofcom proposes a relaxation of the rule that children must not be seen or heard in alcohol ads. The new rule would allow advertisements in which family groups are eating or socialising responsibly, although if group members are under 25 they must only have an incidental role and it must be made explicitly clear that anyone appearing who is under the age of 18 is not drinking an alcoholic drink.
Aggressive or anti-social behaviour
The current rule states that alcoholic drinks must not be advertised in the context of aggressive or anti-social behaviour. Ofcom does not believe this rule has been effective in preventing undesirable associations with alcohol brands. The proposal here therefore is to broaden this so that ads "must not show, imply or refer to acts or impressions of daring, toughness, bravado, aggression or boisterous, irresponsible or anti-social behaviour."
Why this matters:
These proposals differ significantly, we are told, from those put forward by the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, who are not surprisingly very keen to enter into further discussions with Ofcom over their new suggestions.
The current Ofcom plan is to have the new rules in place by November 2004.
It is interesting to compare these proposals with those by Ofcom in respect of food advertising and children. There Ofcom takes the view that there are so many possible influences over consumption of inappropriate food and hence obesity that severe restrictions on broadcast advertising of food would not be appropriate.
Here it takes a different view, believing that tighter control could make a difference, and if adopted and brought into force, these rules will certainly be the death knell of many current alcohol advertising campaigns and put a number of others in question. It remains to be seen how receptive Ofcom will be to what will no doubt be strong lobbying on the part of the industry. Marketinglaw's assessment, however, is that Ofcom is unlikely to waiver, particularly bearing in mind the Government's clear determination to take concerted steps across the board as part of its "Alcohol harm reduction strategy" to control irresponsible drinking in the UK.