Sorry about this. I hadn’t meant to return so quickly to the alcohol debate, but the “news” published today by the British Medical Journal that alcohol advertisers are targeting 15-16 year olds deserves a response.
The nub of the story is that in reviewing alcohol industry marketing documents submitted to the House of Commons Health Select Committee, some health academics, led by Professor Gerard Hastings of Stirling University’s Institute for Social Marketing (the Health Committee’s special adviser) “discovered” that alcohol producers were conducting market research on 15 and 16 year olds. The researchers say that this was used to “guide campaign development and deployment” for alcohol marketing among young people. That is certainly the spin picked up by the media. The Guardian lapped it up: Alcohol industry is ‘targeting young people’, it declared.
But is that what the alcohol industry is really doing? The Portman Group code on Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks seeks to ensure that drinks are marketed in a socially-responsible way and to an adult audience only. Not only is the industry committed not to targeting marketing, advertising, branding or promotions at under-18s, but in advertising it is also committed not to using images of people who are or who appear to be under 25.
The Portman Group has been highly effective in ensuring that the way drinks are named, packaged and promoted is responsible. In 2008 (its most recent report) it randomly sampled 485 alcohol drinks packages and assessed them against the code. Of these, they had reservations against the packaging of 32 products. Producers of most of these drinks immediately volunteered to change their marketing. In just ten cases the producer opted to defend their marketing to the Independent Complaints Panel, and of these just two products were ultimately found in breach of the Code.
So if the industry is so responsible and assiduous in its adherence to the Portman Group Code, why does it conduct market research among 15 and 16 year olds? Well, if you are committed NOT to marketing drinks to the under-18s, it seems only sensible and responsible that you find out what it is that appeals to them so that you can avoid doing it! In order to design advertising and marketing for over-18s, it has to know what would also appeal to under-18s and avoid it. Frankly, I would be more worried if they weren’t doing market research among under-18s.
But this common sense point is lost on the puritanical researchers and the hypocritical media, because it doesn’t serve their purpose of making the alcohol industry the whipping boy for the year. Expect to see a lot more booze bashing as the year unfolds.