A recent newspaper article has drawn attention to a new departure for alcohol brands whereby zero alcohol products are displayed outside dedicated alcohol areas in shops and supermarkets. Similarly, there has been extensive advertising of zero alcohol products in public spaces where alcohol advertising is now prohibited such as on public transport and in sporting settings.
It was suggested in the article that “drinks giants have been gifted” an opportunity to promote zero-alcohol products.
In fact, it’s much more likely that drinks giants are utilising a well-known industry tactic –
called ‘alibi marketing’ – to circumvent laws designed to curb an insidious reach into every area of our lives.
What is alibi marketing?
‘Alibi marketing’ is the practice of a brand using features of the brand that are synonymous with it, without actually advertising alcohol.
As highlighted in a recent Alcohol Action Ireland report on the scale of alcohol marketing in the rugby Six Nations Championship, in France, where restrictions were brought in to curb alcohol advertising in sports, alibi marketing has been adopted – eg the phrase ‘Greatness’ being substituted for the lead sponsor name ‘Guinness’ while using identical colour and font.
The law – the Loi Évin – means that the competition referred to as ‘The Heineken Cup’ could no longer be called as such in France. The brand somewhat circumvented this by branding it in as the ‘H Cup’ in France, and by ensuring all pitch-side advertising reflected this change. The advertising however, still maintained brand recognition by using the Heineken branding of a red star on a green background.
Similarly, during the UEFA EURO 2016 football tournament, we witnessed lead sponsor Carlsberg only used their slogan “Probably…the best in the world” on the advertising hoardings around the pitch, with the text presented in the same font and colours as used for their main brand name. The practice of alibi marketing has been used elsewhere, for example to circumvent a ban on tobacco advertising in Formula One.
In Ireland, following the passage of the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018 (PHAA) and the commencement of measures in 2019 to prohibit advertising of alcohol within 200m of a school, playground, or early years services, and on public transport and in the cinema, some alcohol producers immediately began advertising zero alcohol brands in such areas, essentially still advertising the alcohol brand.
With many such products having virtually identical branding to their alcohol counterparts this clearly undermines the intent of the PHAA to reduce the visibility of alcohol marketing, particularly to children.
Worryingly, the GAA, who had largely broken its association with alcohol, has reengaged with Guinness, promoting its zero-alcohol product complete with all of the same Guinness branding. While it might appear on the surface that promoting zero alcohol drinks is a worthy endeavour, this relationship with our national game allows Guinness to once again to associate itself with a sporting code that had moved away from alcohol promotion.
Are producers in breach of the law by using ‘alibi marketing’?
Whether or not producers are breaching laws like the Loi Évin and the PHAA has not yet been tested in court.
In respect of the Public Health Alcohol Act in Ireland, AAI would argue that the definition of advertising used in the Act is sufficiently expansive to prevent alibi marketing. The legislation’s definition of “advertisement” (s. 2 of the PHAA) states that for the purposes of that Act, advertising means – any form of commercial communication intended to promote an alcohol product, whether directly or indirectly, including trademarks, emblems, marketing images and logos making reference to the product.
While the legal aspect to this issue is up for adjudication, AAI believes it very much goes against the spirit and intention of the law, and that alcohol producers are using an interpretation to advance ‘alibi marketing’ tactics that can circumvent public health legislation.
Alibi marketing of alcohol products is taking place in settings where legislation has outlawed the advertising of alcohol brands.
AAI will continue to monitor this tactic and work with legislators to recognise the issue and determine what action needs to be taken in order to protect the objectives of the Public Health Alcohol Act that intend to protect children – and indeed the wider population, from the mass marketing of a harmful product.