This article is part of our special report Reviewing Europe’s alcohol harm strategy.
As drinks companies sign up to new guidelines for Internet marketing, the spirits industry told EurActiv in an interview that self-regulation is quicker than legislation and insists the industry has no interest in marketing its products to young people.
Elizabeth Crossick is chairwoman of the European Forum for Responsible Drinking (EFRD).
What prompted the EFRD to revise its guidelines on digital marketing of alcoholic drinks?
We are launching new guidelines for commercial communications on the Internet for digital and mobile marketing media, which are part of EFRD Common Standards already adhered to by drinks companies. Technology has developed, and we have a developing view. There have been a lot of the technological developments in recent years, and companies are looking to us for guidance on what is appropriate.
A short annex to the common standards covering the Internet was introduced in 2004, which covered age verification and carrying responsible drinking messages on websites. Since then, we've seen a huge change in the online environment.
What are the key elements of the self-regulatory code?
Companies should not target promotional activities at minors and ensure that when we do advertise through particular media 70% of consumers are over 18. We also avoid using cartoons and sporting figures that might be attractive to minors. Companies must not show consumption of alcohol and driving, nor should they make any health claims – like suggesting drinks give an energy boost, for example. Companies should avoid using celebrities whose primary appeal is to young people in promoting their products. Similarly, young models and other images that might appeal to youth should be avoided.
How can you be sure who views particular websites which may feature promotional material?
Websites carrying promotional information should confirm the age of the user by asking them to confirm their date of birth. This is the best practice recognised by the European Commission available at present. Research is ongoing in several sectors to find other ways of age verification, but you have to balance the need to protect viewers with the need for data protection and privacy.
Are the rules for online marketing stricter than those for off-line promotion?
The new rules are more detailed than anything that went before. In that sense, these guidelines are probably more restrictive than those that apply to promotion via other media, but when you watch an advertisement on TV, you're passive, whereas on the Internet you're active. The medium allows us to ask the viewer to do more and that bring additional responsibilities.
What about user-generated online content, such as YouTube videos of parodies of companies’ marketing campaigns?
When it comes to promotional work that we do ourselves, we have control. But if third-party websites are doing things that are not in keeping with the code, or user-generated content uses our logos without permission, the most we can do is go to the website and ask for it to be taken down.
Website hosts are, for example, forced to take down child pornography, but with most Internet content it's not possible to force people to remove it. There have been some viral videos that distort our content and we want to stop them, but we cannot. That's part of a bigger societal discussion about balancing free speech with protection issues. You have to be careful what you try to control.
Do companies monitor the internet to look for user-generated content that uses their logos?
Time is spent monitoring user-generated websites – companies do spend time on it, but it's a difficult task. If a brand logo is used, you can try to sue for breach of copyright, but it's a nightmare and is often simply not worth it.
What are the penalties for companies who break the guidelines?
We as members do not wish to breach the guidelines. We are looking to raise standards and help marketers to do their job. We're not looking at rogue companies who want to find a way out or around the guidelines. In some countries, it's self-regulation and in others it's co-regulation. If the guidelines are breached, the site has to be taken down.
Is that enough? Should there be a real punishment for those who break the code?
It's embarrassing for companies who are found to have breached the guidelines. They have to sit down at meetings with their peers and nobody wants their industry peers to see them as having failed to stick to the guidelines. In addition, there are national enforcement mechanisms for those who break national advertising standards. There could be penalties, depending on the national situation, but EFRD doesn't directly punish members. Again, we don't foresee a situation where a company would set out to break the rules.
Obviously, creative material always pushes against the boundaries, but we take it as an innovative challenge for the promotion of responsibility to find novel ways of advertising brands without crossing the line. If we are viewed by the public as doing something inappropriate like targeting children, the ramifications are serious. None of my members would want that kind of attention.
The big spur for the drinks industry is to be able to say 'we want to be responsible and be seen to be proactive in raising standards'.
The spirits industry has attracted negative attention in the past, particularly for marketing 'alco-pops'. Won't companies always look at ways of targeting young people?
The companies did not want at all to target young people underage but they have – in hindsight – probably not marketed these products appropriately.
Surely the use of colourful labels and the choice of names were bound to be appealing to a youth market? Isn't there marketing research on what attracts young people to purchase products?
The problem is that we don't know, because we cannot conduct market research on younger people. I don't think the aim was to attract teenagers with those products. In any case, we learned a lot from that experience.
Doesn't that episode suggest legislation rather than self-regulatory guidelines are the best way to ensure good behaviour by industry?
Speed is of the essence with this. The difference between drafting legislation and putting together an up-to-date set of industry guidelines is that we can get things done quickly.
Within a matter of months, we were able to begin this process, consult with members and involve stakeholders and publish an updated set of guidelines that takes account of existing technology. We began last spring, invited input from 39 organisations and can now present the results.
When technology moves on again, we'll be in a position to respond quickly.