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Saturday 21 September 2019

How Ireland has previously flirted with a nanny state

Drink ads are under threat - but is it all just box-ticking? History suggests so, says Damian Corless

Would you be less likely to want to visit a pub if there were fewer alcohol advertisements?
Would you be less likely to want to visit a pub if there were fewer alcohol advertisements?

After finally making it through a rugged three-year Oireachtas obstacle course, the Public Health Alcohol Bill was finally signed into effect this week by Health Minister Simon Harris. The easy bits anyway.

After fighting a fierce rearguard action, the drinks industry faces curbs on advertising to be phased in over three years. From the end of next year alcohol advertising close to schools, playgrounds and public transport will be banned. Over the following two years measures will be introduced to lower the visibility of alcohol products and branding.

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Advertising was always going to be the low hanging fruit. The drinks lobby has lived to fight another day on the two proposals that would have hit them hardest in the pocket, the one to include stark cancer warnings on labels, and the one that would raise prices to a minimum set by the State. Both require separate government green lights, and both would fall by the wayside if the current minority arrangement collapses.

Opposition to the incoming curbs centred on the arguments that they will hurt business, and that nanny state bans not only trample personal freedoms but are often counter-productive. The first stems clearly out of self-interest, but the second can't be denied.

The history of Irish politics is the story of backfiring bans. A very early ban on "immoral literature" led to a roaring under-the-counter trade in racy books.

A ban by the State broadcaster on 'race music' (ie jazz) and 'crooning' imposed in the 1940s boomeranged to the point that you couldn't turn on Irish radio from the late-1950s without hearing Frank Sinatra or Acker Bilk. Later efforts to keep a State stranglehold on broadcasting produced a wild pirate radio boom.

The trouble for all governments everywhere is that prohibitions create black markets and dark webs which wrest control and all important income streams out of State hands.

Advertising, on the other hand is, by definition, highly visible. So when it's banned it can be seen to be banned (or not seen, same thing).

So that's a box easily ticked. But if there's a public demand for something, does banning ads make much difference at all? If an individual craves a drink or a cigarette, will they be put off one iota by the fact there's no billboard guiding the way, or, indeed, one telling them to have a cup of tea instead?

"The great thing about Catholicism," reasoned Father Ted, "is that it's so vague". The same holds true of advertising which is so in-your-face and yet so ephemeral. We know that it must be effective because it makes untold billions and it's everywhere.

On the other hand, for every proof of its potency to change behaviour, there's another proof that it's completely ineffective unless it tells us what we want to hear. Take one iconic Irish product. For two centuries Guinness thrived here with no domestic advertising. The firm's first ad campaign in 1959 celebrated 200 years in business, and made no difference to sales. Then in 1979 it launched Guinness Light with an astronomical budget. Guinness Light went straight down the spout.

In the western world advertising has been part of the clutter of daily life for over a century. Generations have evolved to take what they want and filter out the rest. It is window dressing. Take it or leave it. No government has ever been punished for taking away window dressing.

But taking away the thing itself, through higher prices or outright prohibition, is another matter. Inspired by notions of Gaelic nobility, the first proto-Fine Gael government of independent Ireland went on a banning spree, making sure the people got what was best for them. The electorate repaid them with long spells in the wilderness. Politicians have taken note, and the history of laws supposed to protect the public from themselves is of false starts and glacial progress.

They're not shouting it from the rooftops, but many in the drinks industry are hopeful, that the sections that will really hurt them won't see action in this Dáil lifetime, so the whole rigmarole will have to start again.

Our lawmakers will counter that, even with the best will in the world, legislation is painstakingly tricky and time-consuming. And maybe there really is more at work than a basic instinct for self-preservation. For instance, for the first 51 years of the Irish State, they left legislation on the books allowing for a TD or Senator to be expelled by reason of being mad. The Lunacy (Vacating Of Seats Act) was scrapped in 1983, very quietly, and with no declarations the move was "groundbreaking".

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