Thursday 23 May 2019

Soft sell: Why we buy into booze

The drink giants have succeeded in stopping restrictions on ads and sponsorship with their "responsible drinking" campaigns. In Part One of a four-day series, Kim Bielenberg asks do they really care, or are they selling us alcohol as a way of life?

Are drinks giants selling us alcohol as a way of life?
Are drinks giants selling us alcohol as a way of life?
Greg O'Donoghue
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Diageo are keen to promote their swish Guinness Plus app, which can be downloaded conveniently onto a smartphone. When boozers first use the app, they can claim a free pint of stout at a local pub. There is another free pint provided on the user's birthday and the brewer promises "extraordinary prizes". Drinkers are urged to keep checking their phone for regular rewards.

This form of online promotion is just one of the strategies used by alcohol companies to woo young drinkers.

For over a decade health campaigners have tried to curtail the relentless promotion of drink through advertising and sponsorship.

But the alcohol industry has been extremely effective in stalling or cancelling measures that would limit their ability to market their brands to young people, and they are developing new techniques.

Diageo has long been the king of advertising, ever since the legendary signs from the 1920s boasted, "Guinness is good for you." Its healthy image ensured that the stout was once given to pregnant women and nursing mothers.

The healthy image has gone, but the internet has opened up a new frontier.

Online marketing is now a growing part of Diageo's strategy. Pat Kenny, lecturer in marketing at Dublin Institute of Technology, says: "As early as five years ago it announced that 21pc of its marketing budget would go online."

And Heineken is no less active in the digital sphere. On its website, users can "find where's hot now" through an interactive map that locates where you are: the website shows a picture of a woman posing for a selfie, promoting a restaurant near to where I am standing; and there are also other pubs and restaurants near me that are shown on the map.

There was some hope that our love affair with the bottle might have diminished during the recession as alcohol consumption decreased, but figures for 2014 show that alcohol intake rose again to 11 litres of pure alcohol per person.

Suzanne Costello, chief executive of Alcohol Action Ireland, says Irish consumers are the second-heaviest binge drinkers in Europe.

We may take a fatalistic approach, believing that a fondness for the booze lies deep in the Irish psyche, and is divinely woven into our DNA. According to this view, we drink now, and we always drank.

But according to Costello, the generation of 2015 is drinking double the amount of their counterparts in the 1960s.

The cultural tolerance of drunkenness and the loosely regulated and relentless marketing of alcohol, from daytime advertising during big sporting events to music sponsorship, make up a potent brew.

One of the most remarkable phenomena in public health is how well the alcohol companies have fared by comparison to tobacco.

The cigarette barons have been treated as social pariahs, agents of death who must be restricted in every possible way. Advertising of cigarettes is completely banned and shopkeepers cannot even put them on open display.

It could be argued that the health implications of alcohol addiction for Irish society are just as profound as those of tobacco, but the drinks companies are almost given free rein to glamorise their product and advertise on television before the threshold.

Few broadcasting events are as beer-soaked as big, live sporting occasions when tens of thousands of Irish children are watching their heroes.

Andrew Sneyd, global marketing director for Budweiser, described last year's World Cup as "the biggest global marketing campaign ever for Budweiser".

And research at the last Euro football championships found viewers were exposed to an average of one alcohol brand per minute.

Little surprise, therefore, that research in Britain on 10 and 11-year-olds shows that they are more familiar with beer brands than they are with brands of ice cream and cake. Irish children are unlikely to be any different.

So why has alcohol fared better than tobacco? Marketing lecturer Pat Kenny: "The alcohol industry must have learned a lot from what happened to tobacco.

"The tobacco companies adopted a very defensive strategy from the 1950s, when they came under public scrutiny, denying the health effects of their product."

Rather than fighting the regulators and adopting an aggressive posture, the drinks lobby has taken a radically different approach - if you can't beat them, join them.

What better way of stopping restrictions and maintaining control than joining in discussions and showing concern about heavy drinking.

"Now from the drinks companies' point of view it is all about community engagement and forming partnerships," says Suzanne Costello.

A decade ago, as binge drinking spiralled out of control, there were plans to impose tighter restrictions. The alcohol companies quickly came forward with their own voluntary advertising code.

This allowed them to continue showing adverts before the threshold when children are watching television.

"They want to stop regulation coming in and control their own industry," says Costello. "So they present themselves as a benign force."

The industry set up bodies such as MEAS (Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society) and the campaign Drinkaware. These highlighted the dangers of heavy drinking with advertising campaigns, but stopped short of tight regulation.

A host of well-known names, including Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay, has supported the latest initiative funded with €1 million from Diageo - the Stop out-of-control drinking campaign.

Critics of these slick campaigns say they tend to focus on the drinker and our drinking culture - not the substance.

Problems are attributed to a minority who drink "irresponsibly" as opposed to the majority of "moderate" drinkers.

They focus on education rather strict controls on marketing.

Lecturer Kenny says: "It's beneficial for a brand to be seen as socially responsible in this way."

While the Stop out-of-control drinking has attracted widespread criticism, it has also claimed the support of up to 13,000 people who have signed up for the campaign.

Joanna Fortune, a psychotherapist who is a member of the board, says: "The individuals on the board are very clear where they stand and want to look at our relationship with alcohol, and break the cycle of passing a cultural acceptance of drunkenness from one generation to the next.

"Regulation is part of the solution, but behavioural change requires a change in public attitudes. It is society's psychological motivations that are driving this."

She says none of the board members have been paid for their work.

David Smith, the Ireland director of Diageo, has said: "I want my two young sons to emerge into an Ireland with a very different drinking culture. I want it to be uncool to get drunk."

While the drinks companies have been quite effective in stalling draconian measures against advertising, there are definite signs of a backlash.

The Union of Students of Ireland has disassociated itself from Drinkaware and opposes campaigns instigated by the alcohol companies themselves. USI welfare officer Greg O'Donoghue (pictured right) says he grew up being bombarded with alcohol advertising.

"I am a great rugby fan and when I went to matches I saw Heineken everywhere. That is what I now drink.

"Ultimately, it is a drug and the point is to get young people addicted to that brand. I don't think it is fair that at such a young age you have so much advertising and sponsorship in your face."

The journal Alcohol and Alcoholism seems to confirm these sentiments in a review of studies showing the impact of drink advertising and media exposure on adolescents.

The review concludes that there is "consistent evidence" that alcohol advertising leads young people to take up drinking, and also that it increases consumption.

Kenny says sports and music sponsorship are particularly effective for recruiting young drinkers, because the events engage them at a deep emotional level.

He points to internal documents from the beer brand Carling revealed to the UK parliament.

A plan for a music event states: "Ultimately the band are the heroes at the venue and Carling should use them to 'piggy back' and engage customers' emotions".

Online marketing is also considered highly effective because it engages young people at a personal level. Users are encouraged to post branded Facebook messages or tweets to their peers, sometimes inviting them for a drink.

Kenny says: "Alcohol consumers are becoming marketers themselves."

Eventually, an Irish Government may facedown the campaigns of the drinks lobby, and introduce tight restrictions on TV ads and sponsorship. But with online marketing operating below the radar, and largely free of regulation, the alcohol companies are likely to be always three steps ahead.

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