Thursday 26 April 2018

A fight that looks set to have no winners, only losers

The thorny issue of alcohol advertising will once again raise its head at a specially convened meeting of the ASAI over the next two weeks

The new Minister for Health, Simon Harris Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
The new Minister for Health, Simon Harris Photo: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

John McGee

Round two of the Conor McGregor/ Budweiser ad campaign saga looks set to kick off over the coming weeks at a special complaints adjudication meeting of the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland.

On one side, we have Diageo - manufacturer of Budweiser and the force behind its high- visibility advertising campaign featuring MMA fighter Conor McGregor. The campaign has been running for several weeks on several channels - with the exception of RTE, which refused to broadcast the TV ad, as it believed it breached the self-regulatory advertising codes which all drinks manufacturers adhere to.

On another side, we have the rest of the drinks industry, some of which have claimed that the campaign should never have seen the light of day. In their view, it is a breach of the codes which, amongst other things, strive to ensure that sporting heroes are not used to promote the sale of alcohol.

Diageo, for its part, has robustly defended the campaign and believes that it has acted properly, responsibly and within the relevant advertising codes.

While it may seem like a school-ground spat amongst rivals, there will be no winners - as what's at stake is the reputation of the drinks industry and its ability to market and advertise its products.

The timing of all of this couldn't be worse for the industry and the wider advertising sector as a whole, with the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015 set to land on the desk of the new Minister for Health, Simon Harris.

Also at stake is the reputation of the self-regulatory regime that polices advertising standards and vets all alcohol-related advertising.

In the case of the Budweiser campaign, many within the advertising industry believe it was a once-off system failure by the gatekeepers in charge and that the existing codes need to be tightened and any ambiguity needs to be ironed out.

The alternative for the industry is full government regulation and the distinct possibility of a so-called 'dark market' in which all alcohol advertising and sponsorship is banned. This could lead to a fall-off in sales, investment, innovation and ultimately jobs within the economy

The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, which was introduced by Leo Varadkar in November 2015, proposes a number of pretty stern measures aimed at curtailing what drinks companies can and can't do when it comes to advertising their products.

The backdrop to all of this, of course, is the growing problem of alcohol abuse in Irish society, a topic that is as vexed as it is complex.

Woven into this complexity is the belief, in some circles, that advertising plays a role in creating and sustaining this problem - even though the drinks industry spends well over €30m a year funding campaigns that encourage people to drink sensibly and responsibly.

In addition, studies have shown that alcohol consumption in Ireland is down by 24pc over the last 15 years.

In a lot of the noise surrounding this seemingly never-ending debate, the issue of evidenced-based research to back up the claims and counter-claims seems to be seriously lacking. Yes, alcohol abuse is a problem in Irish society but is it directly, or partly, attributable to advertising and marketing? And if so, where is the evidence that backs this up? And if a dark market is introduced, will this eradicate the problem?

Unfortunately, studies from other markets, most notably France, suggest otherwise.

It is also unfortunate that all of this comes at a time when the drinks industry in Ireland is undergoing a mini-renaissance.

One of the great success stories in Irish business over the past 10 years has been the proliferation of microbreweries and craft distilleries that have sprung up around the country. At the last count, there are now 12 craft distilleries and 58 microbreweries on the island of Ireland - a testament to the plucky entrepreneurial spirit and gutsy ambition of their founders.

Such is the growing importance of these enterprises that they will all play a key role in driving Ireland's export growth over the next 15 years.

A government report, published in 2015, estimated that drink exports could double to €2bn over the next 15 years, while 13,000 new jobs could be created.

Given that the industry already contributes around €2.2bn annually to the Exchequer through VAT and excise duties, and supports over 92,000 jobs, it is more than fair to say that we are talking about a very important part of the economy.

Because of this, surely it's incumbent upon on all the key stakeholders in this debate to step back, take stock and examine all the options and all the evidence and collectively work towards eradicating the problem?

Sunday Indo Business

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