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Obvious: Booze Advertising is Designed to get People Drinking

By Professor Gerard Hastings

Of course advertising works.

We in public health spend a lot of time proving the self-evident. It’s nearly three decades since I first started researching the link between alcohol advertising and young people’s drinking and I have lost count of the times friends, colleagues and complete strangers have looked at me sideways and said some variation on ‘but surely it’s obvious; booze advertising is designed to get people drinking, and they wouldn’t spend all that money on it if it didn’t work’. Sadly, however, common sense counts for little in the policy arena, so studies had to be done. And they were; hundreds of them: thousands of interviews, focus groups and real world observations. These required tens of thousands of words to explain the methods, detail the analyses and draw the conclusions. And this wasn’t just done for the alcohol market1, but for the food2 and tobacco3 sectors as well. All to establish that when powerful, well- resourced and fearfully skilful multinational corporations set about influencing our behaviour, they succeed; especially with children. To prove what Basil Fawlty would call the bleeding obvious.

Hunting in packs

This focus on the axiomatic not only wastes time, it distracts attention from wider concerns. Advertising is just one weapon in the corporate alcohol marketing arsenal, which also includes pricing, point of sale promotion, ubiquitous distribution, packaging and new product development. Each of these levers is a powerful influencer in its own right; in combination they are overwhelming. Price, for example, has a massive impact on what we buy. Think of all the special offers, from BOGOFs to multipacks, in your local supermarket and remember how susceptible we all are to them. That is why minimum unit pricing is such an effective policy measure; and why corporate alcohol is doing so much to fight it here in the UK.

Similarly new product development has had a monumental impact on UK alcohol consumption in the last twenty years. It began with the introduction of alcopops and designer drinks by small operators. When no one objected to this unholy melding of child centred sodas with an addictive drug, the multinationals moved in and gentrified the market. Corporate alcohol never talks about alcopops; the name has been excised from their language and replaced by the much more respectable sounding ‘Ready to Drink’ or simply RTD. Brand leaders like Bacardi Breezer and Smirnoff Ice have been kitted out in the sophisticated guise of pseudo-cocktails. And the RTD sector is now sufficiently respectable for a company of Diageo’s blue chip standing to boast that ‘the RTD sub-category continues to provide a strong platform for new innovations’ and that ‘Diageo GB will continue to develop innovations to drive category growth’4. Meanwhile the small operators carry on producing their disgraceful test-tube drinks, one serving shots and ‘Dragon’s Soop’ (combining energy drink stimulants like taurine and guarana with 8.5% alcohol) (see Figure 1). Such is the mind-numbing strength of this last offering that it is known in the West of Scotland vernacular as ‘wreck the hoose juice’.

Meanwhile advertising has itself become hydra-headed. The once omnipotent television commercial is now combined with countless other conventional media from press and cinema to merchandising and sponsorship deals. As a result, in the UK, alcohol promotion has become a sort of cultural wallpaper, colouring all aspects of our lives. No wonder a UK brewer boasts that young men ‘think about 4 things’ and ‘we brew 1 and sponsor 2 of them5; no wonder 96% of thirteen year olds are aware not just of the occasional ad, but alcohol promotion in more than five different media (Figure 2).

Since this boast and this study, digital media have exploded onto the scene. As the Health Select Committee enquiry of 2011 warned us it would, marketing spend in hyperspace is now outstripping that in the real world. This is not only exposing children to an alcohol suffused alternate reality, it is actually recruiting them into the marketing team. Kathy Parker, Diageo’s senior vice-president of global marketing and innovation summed up the strategy as follows: “Facebook are working with us to make sure that we are not only fan collecting but that they are actively engaged and driving advocacy for our brands. We are looking for increases in customer engagement and increases in sales and [market] share.”6 Kids are not just being sold alcohol, they are selling it to each other.

Stakeholder marketing

But corporate alcohol is not satisfied with getting children to do its dirty work, it also wants to co-opt leaders in politics, policy making and public health. Marketers are well aware that our individual consumption decisions are greatly influenced by policy measures such as taxation, licensing and marketing restrictions, so they are just as assiduous in their attempts to influence our leaders’ behaviour, as they are that of their potential customers. And in the UK this ‘stakeholder marketing’ is causing just as much alcohol harm as consumer marketing. Two text book examples have just unfolded in the last few weeks.

First in September 2013 a bit of good journalism had revealed the shocking fact that nearly 300 children aged 11 or under had been admitted to hospital emergency rooms over the last year because they had drunk to excess. The BBC turned to the Drinkaware Trust (DAT) for a public health comment. The fact the DAT is wholly funded by the alcohol industry was never even mentioned. The resulting interaction is presented in Figure 3; unsurprisingly the DAT comment echoes the well-rehearsed industry line – this is a problem caused by peer pressure, weak parenting and the younger generation’s unfortunate social networking habits. No mention is made of any industry responsibility whatsoever – not even the infamous deal with Facebook.

The second example is UK’s Responsibility Deal Alcohol Network (RDAN), an attempt by the Health Ministry to work collaboratively with industry and public health. This also has to be seen through a stakeholder marketing lens. Alcohol companies earned their place at the table by making certain pledges – to introduce more responsible labelling for example, or boost the production of lower alcohol products. The quid pro quo for making these promises is an opportunity to build relationships with ministers, enhance corporate reputations and fend off unwanted regulatory measures. The RDAN is for them a monumental networking opportunity.

The danger for us in public health is that we focus our evaluation efforts on the pledges. Are, for instance, the new labels actually being introduced and if they are, what impact are they having on drinking behaviour and ultimately public wellbeing? This is our bread and butter; it calls for logic models, intricate diagrams and complex studies. It’s what we do. But it misses the point.

Any public health gains from the pledges have to be balanced against industry gains from this stakeholder marketing. Properly implemented labelling improvements may result in measurable benefits, but these would be more than wiped out if industry’s RDAN-energised relationship with Government enabled it to encourage the abandonment of much stronger evidence-based measures like Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP). And there is strong evidence that it has; as one of the public health representatives on the RDAN said in his resignation letter:

‘I have sat with representatives of the alcohol industry in Responsibility Deal meetings for the last two years. Over this period I have seen the Deal turned by industry into a tool to avoid actions that would improve people’s health. At the last meeting an industry representative even made it clear that their continued contributions to the Deal were dependent on a minimum unit price not being implemented.’7

Shortly after this meeting the Cameron Government abandoned MUP8. In these circumstances focusing on individual pledges would be like the Trojans rejoicing that they had got their hands on some nice timber when they discovered the wooden horse.

The Devil you know

The one thing that can be said in favour of alcohol advertising is that we know it is there. It might distract us into doing axiomatic studies, but at least we can spot it. The rest of corporate alcohol’s marketing effort, however, keeps its head down. The point of sale display that triggers an impulse purchase, the test-tube drink that never appears in respectable bars and the peer to peer Facebook campaign that parents will never see can easily slip under our radar. This marketing savvy, however, takes on a truly sinister cloak when it is targeted at our leaders.

References

  1. Anderson P, de Bruijn A, Angus K, Gordon R, Hastings G. Impact of alcohol advertising and media exposure on adolescent alcohol use: a systematic review of longitudinal studies. Alcohol Alcoholism 2009;44:229-43.
  2. Cairns G, Angus K, Hastings G and Caraher M (2013). Systematic reviews of the evidence on the nature, extent and effects of food marketing to children. A retrospective summary. Appetite, 62:209- 215.5
  3. Lovato C, Linn G, Stead LF, Best A. Impact of tobacco advertising and promotion on increasing adolescent smoking behaviours. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2003; 4:CD003439.
  4. Solley, S. (2005) ‘Diageo Backs Bourbon RTD Debut with Direct Activity’ in Marketing Magazine, 24 August 2005. http://www.marketingmagazine.co.uk/news/492180/Diageobacks-bourbon-RTD-debutdirect- activity/?DCMP=ILCSEARCH
  5. Ibid. p.5.
  6. Bradshaw, T. (2011) ‘Facebook Strikes Diageo Advertising Deal’ in Financial Times, 18 September 2011, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/d044ea24-e203-11e0-9915- 00144feabdc0.html#axzz1irtgC58l
  7. Accessed via FOI
  8. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10185563/David-Camerons-plan-for-minimumalcohol-price-is-scrapped.html
  9. Gordon R, Brookes O and Hastings G, Alcohol Marketing & Young People: moving ‘Below the Line’ EU Expert Conference, Stockholm 21st September 2009
  10. On the Today Programme: the UK’s premier radio news source

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