This article is part of our special report Reviewing Europe’s alcohol harm strategy.
Leading producers from the beer, wine and spirits sectors are set today (16 April) to launch their first joint initiative in advertising self-regulation designed to combat abuses across the fast-growing social media.
Europe’s eight largest alcohol manufacturers have agreed to work with the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), the European Commission and national associations to implement measures aimed to protect the young and vulnerable from targeted advertising.
The so-called Responsible Marketing Pact, to be launched in Brussels, will create common EU-wide guidelines designed to prevent minors from seeing alcohol ‘viral’ adverts on social media, and prohibit the creation of ads which seek to allure young people.
The signatories include AB InBev, Bacardi, Brown-Forman, Carlsberg, Diageo, Heineken, Pernod Ricard and SAB Miller, which together represent a majority of European alcohol advertising spending.
"The Responsible Marketing Pact breaks new ground because it is the first time major companies from the beer, wine and spirits sectors have come together to seek unified responsibility standards for all alcohol beverage marketing communications,” said Stephan Loerke, managing director at the World Federation of Advertising.
The initiative, he added, "marks a turning point" in the industry's commitment to responsible marketing.
Naming and shaming
Under the pact, standards for age controls will be established along with a common standard that ads may only be placed in media where at least 70% of the audience is expected to be above the legal purchase age.
Once these standards have been agreed, implementation and compliance will be monitored by the audit firm Accenture and national self-regulatory organisations. Sanctions for violations include public naming and shaming, and referral to national regulatory authorities in cases of repeat offences.
The Responsible Marketing Pact takes the form of a “commitment” by the WFA and the companies to the European Alcohol and Health Forum (EAHF). The EAHF is the stakeholder group of the European strategy to support member states in reducing alcohol-related harm (see background).
Alcohol strategy is under review
The move comes at a pivotal time as the European Commission has started assessing the EU alcohol strategy ahead of a full review expected at the beginning of 2013. The EU executive is currently evaluating the policy's effectiveness before considering how it may be updated.
Advertising and marketing – especially through social media – are areas the Commission is expected to consider explicitly in its strategy update.
Advertising standards in relation to alcohol vary considerably across the EU. In France there is a blanket ban on advertising alcohol with limited and strict exceptions. Scandinavian countries also prohibit television and magazine advertising, whilst in other EU countries advertising remains possible though tightly controlled.
The new initiative represents the first time that European companies representing beer, wine and spirits producers have teamed up on the issue.
Organisations fighting alcohol abuse are sceptical about the effectiveness of industry self-commitments.
“I am not happy with self-regulation alone as a stand alone measure [in relation to alcohol advertising],” said Marienn Skar, the secretary-general of Eurocare the alcohol policy alliance. “The problem is that there is no evidence that it has any effects.”
Consumer groups defending traditional beer culture also have their reservations about the initiative. “We think advertising is often used by larger brewers as market domination we are against mass advertising so blanket banning is not we believe the way to go,” said Ian Loe, of the secretariat of the European Beer Consumers Union (EBCU).
Loe explained: “Norway, for example, bans alcohol and beer [advertisements] even outside bars. But you can promote low-and non-alcoholic beer. So the larger brewers can still advertise. We are against mass advertising but we would like to see an open beer market and not one dominated by two brands to the exclusion of all else. We think it’s unfair competition.”
Alcohol producers, for their part, emphasised the industry's unity in addressing common challenges.
“Alcohol beverage producers take seriously the expectations from our consumers and society at large that our marketing communications must respect the highest standards. We are joining forces with our partners to show that meeting and exceeding these expectations continues to be our priority,” said Jean-François van Boxmeer, chief executive of Heineken.
“As business leaders we have a responsibility to lead by example, and this is a unique case of industry pooling its collective resources and experiences to build common alcohol marketing standards that will stand the test of time,” said Andrew Morgan, President of Diageo Europe, which owns brands like J&B whisky, Smirnoff vodka and Guinness beer.
“By setting self-regulatory standards that go significantly further than the law, and verifying that these are complied with, we will make a tangible difference to the governance of beverage alcohol marketing. This is an excellent example of the contribution of voluntary action to the objectives of the European Strategy on reducing alcohol-related harm,” said Christian Barré, chief executive of Domecq Bodegas, Pernod Ricard.
Chaired by the European Commission, the European Alcohol and Health Forum (EAHF) brings together alcohol beverage producers, civil society and consumer representatives, the medical profession, the advertising and retail sectors and others to promote voluntary actions to help reduce alcohol-related harm in Europe.
The promotion of effective standards to ensure responsible alcohol beverage marketing has been an important area of focus for the EAHF.
As an official EAHF commitment, the Responsible Marketing Pact will have to comply monitoring and reporting requirements, and be subject to oversight by the European Commission.
The World Federation of Advertisers will present a first progress report on implementation and compliance with the agreed common standards by June 2013. A final report is due by February 2015.
- End 2012-2013: European Commission to review the EU's alcohol strategy.
- By June 2013: World Federation of Advertisers to present a first progress report on implementation and compliance with the agreed common standards. A final report is due by February 2015.