You’d be forgiven for thinking that we were well on our way to becoming a nation of teetotalers, such is the vociferous marketing of zero alcohol drinks – products that only make up 1.5% of the Irish drinks market.
Exponential growth in zero-alcohol products is something that is currently being bandied about by the alcohol industry. Certainly, there is growth but from a very low base. What is definitely really increasing is their interest in marketing them. It’s not hard to make the connection between their mass marketing and the new legal landscape facing the alcohol industry.
Zero alcohol ads are not being pushed because the alcohol industry wants us to drink less but because of new laws banning where they can advertise their products.
It’s a happy confluence of events for the industry that this is happening at a time when the zeitgeist is one of wellness and self-improvement, something the industry is happy to align with, while not actually taking actions to improve public health.
Protecting people’s health from alcohol is the raison d’être of the Public Health Alcohol Act (PHAA). The aim of the Act is to reduce alcohol use by 20% across the whole of the population and a key part of this is to reduce the level of alcohol marketing in Ireland. It is being implemented painfully slowly and industry attempts to erode its intention every step of the way. This is just the latest phase in what it sees as a game to maintain the status quo.
The PHAA measures to reduce alcohol advertising are in places that children inhabit- near schools, playgrounds, on trains and buses, in cinemas – and also on the field of play in sports. The modest measures – watered down significantly through industry lobbying, are also intended to protect the population in general from drowning in a constant sea of alcohol ads.
Just as these legal mechanisms came into force, big alcohol brands began brand sharing – that is advertising zero alcohol beers using the same parent branding, logos, colours, everything. Not surprisingly, research indicates that this shared design successfully increases young people’s brand familiarity and affected their brand recognition and brand awareness
It’s no coincidence that the very next day after PHAA restrictions came into effect, Heineken, which was advertising on buses in Dublin suddenly had the very same ad, just with a zero added, small and hardly visible on a large vehicle whizzing by.
These ads are everywhere now that regular alcohol ads can’t be- on billboards, on public transport and on TV, especially during sporting events. This very much goes against the spirit of our world-leading – and indeed lauded, laws, to protect us from ubiquitous alcohol marketing, which comprehensive research shows is harmful in terms of early initiation to drinking and in how much and how often people drink.
Alcohol companies are really pushing the boundaries, with campaigns portraying zero alcohol drinks as something to drink in addition to alcohol rather than as a substitute – and in situations where it is illegal or dangerous to drink alcohol. This constant brand exposure for big alcohol companies works in their favour on all counts– it makes them appear to be conscientious actors who care about our health and allows them to advertise in restricted areas.
Just as the tobacco industry makes candy flavoured e-cigarettes, the alcohol industry is expanding its reach into realms of life where alcohol currently doesn’t have a place. For example, Heineken’s ad campaign for ‘Heineken 0.0’ actually uses the tag line: “That moment you couldn’t have a beer… now you can”, with ads showing people drinking Heineken 0.0 while doing things like driving or going water-skiing. This is a worrying departure for an industry clearly on the ropes in terms of increasing and long overdue regulation. Because guess what, marketing really works and that’s why millions are spent on it every year. Research shows that children as young as two can recognise alcohol by the appearance of the bottle and can understand its use in adult culture.
Brand sharing means that children who see people drinking what appears to them to be alcohol – because of the same branding – will at a young age be conditioned to think differently about when and where it is appropriate to drink alcohol. This will normalise drinking at every occasion – from the gym to the road to the waterways. The switch from zero to alcohol will be much more seamless in this scenario, but much more dangerous too given the settings in question.
Mockery of the Public Health Alcohol Act
It also makes a mockery of the still not fully implemented PHAA.
For example, the PHAA brought in restrictions about product placement in retail settings, meaning alcohol had to be sectioned off into a designated area. Now, zero alcohol products are highly visible outside the area, a gateway product indeed. If this is allowed to continue, every aspect of the PHAA will be denigrated. Take the broadcast watershed which bans alcohol ads before 9pm and which still has not been implemented. Will alcohol brands simply replace their ads with zero alcohol ads? If so, PHAA may as well be consigned to the annals of history of a law that had great promise but was hijacked by industry influence.
There is a strong case to be made that what’s occurring is actually a breach of the law.
AAI would argue that the definition of advertising used in the Act should be sufficiently broad 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.
If this is not clear enough, then an amendment must be brought forth to ensure this so-called loophole is closed. In Norway, which has similar laws, the codes governing its legislation are crystal clear. Marketing of no alcohol and low alcohol products of the same brand as alcoholic products is banned. Non-alcoholic beverages must have their own distinct branding, quite different from the parent brand.
Another serious lacuna in regard to these products is that there is no law preventing them being sold to under 18 year olds. It is understood that retailers, bars and pubs are generally treating such products as alcohol products and not selling to under 18s, which begs the question – why? Could it be that it’s recognised that it’s not appropriate to sell a product that mimics alcohol and that would allow young people to start to taste the flavour of alcohol and ‘mock drink’ from any age? If this is the thinking regarding the sale of these products, then this should be the thinking in relation to marketing them. Indeed, the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland have issued guidelines telling advertisers not to market these products to children. We know that this is very likely because of sports sponsorship – Diageo is the number 4 advertiser to our children. The ASAI has no powers to take meaningful action and so we must immediately clarify the law in this regard.
When it comes to sports sponsorship, the situation is particularly insidious.
Sport sponsorship provides alcohol companies with a highly visible method of reaching a large and diverse audience, including many children, and of tapping into strong emotional connections with teams and sports.
An AAI study published in 2021 around the frequency of marketing during the Six Nations Championship monitored the level of alcohol references during matches. It found that alcohol branding was displayed every 15 seconds and that 50% of the alcohol references were on the field of play – the very place where restrictions came into force, and where we now see the zero-zero approach moving smoothly with shared branding on and off the pitch.
The PHAA does not ban alcohol sports sponsorship but in November 2022 a modest measure was implemented outlawing alcohol advertisements on the field of play, while still allowing them on hoardings around the pitch. As an Irish Times article highlighting the issue of brand sharing this week pointed out, the law is ‘a fairly basic demand.’ But while Diageo might be, with its Six Nations zero campaign, within the letter of the law, it is certainly not, as it claims, “supporting the objective of reducing harmful use of alcohol.” And as already noted, AAI believes there is a case to be made that this activity does actually breach the law as per the definition or an advertisement.
Scotland is currently in the midst of a comprehensive consultation in relation to restricting alcohol advertising and promotion.
The Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), a partnership of the Medical Royal Colleges in Scotland and the Faculty of Public Health, is looking to what’s going on in Ireland right now and is recommending to the Scottish Government that in order for restrictions to be implemented as a successful public health measure, a blanket ban on all forms of alcohol marketing through sports sponsorship must be put in place. It says it has “observed from international examples that loopholes and exemptions in legislation will be exploited by the alcohol industry to continue to raise brand awareness and salience – driving sales, consumption, and harms.”
All of this needs to be put into context. Remember this is an industry that denies, distorts and underplays harms caused by the product it makes money from manufacturing, promoting and selling. It is an industry that has ambiguously called on us to ‘drink responsibly’ while knowing that if we all did actually drink at current low risk drinking guidelines its sales would be reduced by around 35%.
Zero alcohol adverts are a trojan horse, opening the gates to further normalising drinking at every single occasion in life. There is no end to the possibility of where industry will go with this or what other consequences might flow from it over time. It simply cannot be allowed to continue.