The public believes that television alcohol adverts breach their regulatory controls. There is a clear need to strengthen the rules, argues Professor David French.
Television advertising of alcohol is subject to what should be strong content controls. Regulations ban advertisements from implying that alcohol can contribute to popularity or confidence, or that it is capable or changing mood, physical condition or behaviour. The industry is supposed to use television advertising to promote brands, not to enlarge the size of the market.
Yet a study of over 350 adults has shown that most members of the public believe alcohol advertising on television breaches the rules. This leads us to the clear conclusion that the current regulatory system for advertising alcohol on UK television is inadequate.
Television advertising of alcohol products must comply with the BCAP Code – the Advertising Standards Authority’s Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice Code. But, until our survey, there has been no impartial study examining the success of the BCAP Code and whether advertisements abide by it.
In the UK, the total annual expenditure on alcohol advertising is around £200 million, of which about £100 million is spent on television advertisements. Members of the alcohol and advertising industries argue that these alcohol advertisements do not influence levels or patterns of consumption, but serve to promote brand loyalty.
This claim stands in opposition to a wealth of international evidence that has demonstrated both immediate and longer-term effects of alcohol advertising on individual consumption and on total, population-wide, levels of consumption. Detailed studies have found that the more young people are exposed to alcohol advertising, the earlier they initiate drinking and the more frequently and heavily they drink.
Clearly, alcohol advertising does more than promote brand loyalty: it also has the effect of increasing alcohol consumption.
Our research asked the general public to be arbiters on whether television advertising used any of the concepts banned by the regulations. Previous research in the US and Australia found non-industry experts perceived television adverts to be in breach of their country’s codes. Our survey – conducted in Manchester – has shown that the situation is similar in the UK.
Researchers surveyed 373 adults, aged 18 to 74 years, and showed each of them one of seven adverts that had been broadcast in the previous month on leading commercial television channels. Most people did not accept that the advertisements met their regulatory obligations. Overall, 75% of participants rated each of the adverts as breaching at least one rule from the BCAP Code.
More than half the advertisements were regarded as implying that drinking alcohol contributes to drinkers’ popularity or confidence and that alcohol is capable of changing mood, physical condition or is nourishment.
These results suggest that the UK alcohol and advertising industries design advertisements that do not appear to comply with the letter or the spirit of the BCAP code. Many adverts allude to themes such as youth culture, immoderation and social and sexual success, albeit indirectly.
The only previous studies on this topic are several surveys conducted by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). However, there is a conflict of interests present. Broadcast advertising in the UK is co-regulated by Ofcom, the television regulator, and, on a day to day basis, the ASA. The ASA’s Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice consists of representatives from the advertising and broadcast industries and they write and review the regulations.
So it is perhaps unsurprising that the ASA’s studies report over 99% compliance of advertisements across all media with the BCAP Code. The ASA provide few details on the methods used to arrive at this figure and the results have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The figure of 99% compliance is implausible for three reasons. First, the findings are at odds with our recent research. Second, the findings are inconsistent with comparable international studies. Third, there is a conflict of interest in a regulator being asked to assess the success of its own regulatory system.
Our research method of asking the public for their views of compliance overcomes the lack of credibility and transparency in the conduct and conclusions of the ASA surveys.
The results of our research chime with other evidence. An analysis was conducted of internal marketing documents from four major alcohol producers relating to four alcohol brands in the UK. This was undertaken for a UK House of Commons Health Select Committee investigation into the conduct of the alcohol industry.
This analysis found that advertisements were designed to explicitly target many prohibited themes, particularly relating to immoderate consumption and social and sexual success, as well as targeting drinkers under 18 years of age. The author of this analysis argued that current regulations focus on content, which requires regulators to make judgments about concepts such as ‘social success’ or ‘masculinity’ that are open to multiple and contested interpretations. Consequently, it is difficult for regulators to pin down the subtle emotional associations present in modern advertising as indicating the use of such concepts which would be in breach of the BCAP Code.
Taken together, the conclusions of this analysis and our latest survey, along with the comparatively small number of breaches judged by the ASA, indicate that co-regulation of UK television alcohol adverts is ineffective and requires reconsideration.
One alternative is the French loi evin, which bans the advertisement of alcoholic drinks on television and specifies what features of alcoholic drinks may be advertised in print media. There is evidence that such a law would be more acceptable to the general public than other mechanisms to reduce alcohol consumption, such as restricting licensing hours.
- The paper “Do UK television advertisements abide by the Code of Broadcast Advertising rules regarding the portrayal of alcohol?” by Rebecca Searle; Daisy Alston and David P. French is published in the Journal Alcohol and Alcoholism.