LONDON (AdAge.com) -- In Britain it's called "binge drinking," in Germany it's known as "coma" drinking, and in France you "se prendre une cuite" -- but whatever you call it, excessive alcohol consumption is putting marketing in the crosshairs.
In the U.K., a recent study by the British Medical Association, "Under the Influence," is recommending a complete ban on all alcohol advertising and sponsorship in the U.K. The move could deplete around $286 million in spending from an already struggling British media industry.
That's left marketers feeling the heat, and arguing that advertising is being made the scapegoat. "The pressure won't go away and banning marketing makes good headlines but it doesn't address the real social problems," said Ian Twinn, public affairs director of the U.K. advertisers' trade body, ISBA.
Dave Trott, creative director of London agency Chick Smith Trott, said, "People who blame advertising for binge drinking have misunderstood the whole purpose of advertising -- it's about stealing market share, not persuading people to drink."
In France, there has been a long-time TV ban on alcohol advertising, yet the binge drinking culture is beginning to permeate French society, which has had a reputation as the home of moderate drinking.
"The pattern of consumption here is very different; wine is more popular than beer but it's not advertised much because it's not bought as a brand," said John Woodward, Paris-based planning director of Publicis Worldwide. "Beer ads do appear on posters in the summer in big cities, selling its refreshing properties. This possibly favors the larger brands."
A look around Europe shows that alcohol advertising is regulated differently everywhere, and that no country has found the perfect solution. Austria and Belgium have also banned spirits from TV. In Italy, there's no alcohol advertising on TV between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. -- the hours when schoolchildren might be watching. In Russia, you can't show humans or animals in alcohol ads; German drinks manufacturers can't show sports stars drinking alcohol, and strictly no TV ads before 8 p.m.
"Alcohol abuse is a problem in Germany, but the front line of concern is more with the way bars market themselves than with branded-drink advertising," said Gunnar Brune, managing director of Lowe Germany. "There is a trend for flat-rate parties, where for $12 or more to you can drink as much as you like. There have been a number of deaths and the press jumps on it."
Ireland already has some of the toughest laws on drinking in the European Union, but the Irish Medical Association has backed the BMA's call for an end to all alcohol advertising. Ciaran O'Reilly, managing director of Refresh Digital Communications in Dublin, said, "The realities are that it would be the view of a lot of informed people that advertising is not the root cause of the problem. Living in a darker and more-miserable climate seems to have a direct correlation with alcohol levels."
In many cases, marketers are taking the initiative. Most countries have an equivalent of Britain's Drinkaware organization, which promotes responsible drinking and is supported by all the major drinks manufacturers including Heineken, Diageo, InBev, Pernod Ricard and SAB Miller. The big supermarkets -- Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Waitrose -- are also on board.
But the BMA dismissed such efforts by the drinks industry as "self-serving," and urged for an end to the self-regulation of alcohol advertising. "This is said out of ignorance," Mr. Twinn said. "We are open-minded and there's an important international debate to be had, but they are not engaging properly with the arguments -- they're just shouting from the rooftops."
"There's a swell of feeling against binge drinking and it gets headlines because it's a pretty emotive topic," said Jeremy Hine, Lowe Worldwide director of Central and Eastern Europe and Russia, who ran the Stella Artois business in the U.K. for years. "Before we ban advertising, we should look at further controls in other areas that aren't as well governed, like pricing and distribution and how pubs and clubs promote alcohol."