Sobering Up the U.K. Proves Difficult

Activists Push for Tighter Restrictions, but Regulators May Have Reached Their Limit

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British 10- and 11-year-olds are more likely to recognize Carlsberg lager than Ben & Jerry 's ice cream, and they're more familiar with fictional characters in a Foster's beer commercial than with those from an ad for Cadbury chocolate.

A-B InBev CMO Chris Burggraeve says they are trying to avoid the '0.0001% of people who spoil the party for everybody.'
A-B InBev CMO Chris Burggraeve says they are trying to avoid the '0.0001% of people who spoil the party for everybody.'

The statistics, from a study by Alcohol Concern, give weight to the argument that the U.K.'s alcohol-advertising restrictions are not working. Alcohol is linked to a 25% increase in liver deaths in the past decade, and binge-drinking has become a problem for the middle-aged and middle-class as well as for out-of -control youth.

As a result, pressure is mounting on alcohol marketers. The U.K. government has signaled its own concerns. In the recent Alcohol Strategy Document, it called for the industry to "market, advertise and sell products in a responsible way and deliver the core commitment to foster a culture of responsible drinking."

But how can the culture be changed in a country where Prime Minister David Cameron was a member of the Bullingdon Club, a notorious drinking society, while at Oxford University?

Booze manufacturers are keen to show they are taking the matter seriously, while not allowing drink to be demonized.

"We absolutely get that alcohol is not like detergent and pet food -- if it's misused there are social consequences -- but it also has a positive, celebratory role in society," said Matt Barwell, Diageo's marketing and innovation director-Western Europe. "We believe in a multifaceted approach that includes education and self-regulation."

According to the Advertising Standards Authority, alcohol marketing in the U.K. is already heavily regulated. Current rules, dating to 2005, require that ads not link alcohol with sex, social success, youth culture or juvenile behavior.

Chris Burggraeve, chief marketing officer of Anheuser-Busch InBev, grew up in Belgium, where at primary school he enjoyed a state-sanctioned glass of beer with his lunch every day. You must now be 16 to drink beer in Belgium, but he defended the practice of his childhood and argued that excessive regulation turns alcohol into forbidden fruit.

"We are very clear that we want to avoid the 0.0001% of people who spoil the party for everybody," Mr. Burggraeve said. "We don't need binge drinking, we can grow our consumption without that ."

Europe's biggest alcohol advertisers (including AB InBev, Bacardi, Brown-Forman, Carlsberg, Diageo's , Heineken, Pernod Ricard and SAB Miller) recently launched the Responsible Marketing Pact, a commitment to protecting minors from alcohol advertising by creating a unified code.

The pact will not affect U.K. alcohol advertising but will establish a level playing field across continental Europe. It is also clearly designed to help strengthen the case for continued self-regulation, acting as a preemptive strike against any threat of government-imposed alcohol advertising rules.

Despite continual reassurances from regulators and alcohol companies, Alcohol Concern is campaigning for tougher rules.

"The regulation is not as robust as it could be, and with the growth of digital and social media, young people should be [better] protected," said spokesman Tom Smith.

Some major marketers are still pushing the boundaries. In April this year, Budweiser was found guilty of breaking Advertising Standards Authority rules with a radio spot that connected alcohol and sexual prowess. It featured a coach giving a talk to a group of young men preparing for a night out on the town.

In a move to cut bingeing and "preloading" (getting drunk before leaving the house for a night out) the U.K. government has targeted pricing, rather than marketing, as its first line of attack.

Mr. Cameron recently banned supermarket bulk discounts and announced a minimum price of about 64 cents a unit of alcohol. But that tactic may be found to contravene European Union free-trade legislation, in which case the spotlight may well return to ad regulations.

But even regulators seem hesitant.

"It is difficult to say whether the alcohol-advertising rules will be tightened further," an ASA spokesperson said. "We will carefully consider evidence from the government that supports the need for further protection."

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