NZ Herald - Editorial 21.2.06

BKA ad agency head Terry King attempted to convince us (NZ Herald, February 10) that not a single extra bottle of booze has been sold as a result of the advertising of alcohol.

Mr King’s take on the issue is a preview of what we’re likely to get from industry groups in the upcoming Government-led review of the regulation of alcohol marketing. It was more than a little depressing. Mr King used the same tired and simplistic arguments that so many of his advertising and alcohol industry colleagues have used to defend their freedom to market alcohol with relatively unimpeded creativity.

We’re talking big here — in 2004 Pernod Ricard, the world’s biggest producer of wine and spirits and owner of a large chunk of New Zealand’s wine industry, spent over a $1 billion on advertising and promotion.

When faced with a potential increase in restrictions, advertising and alcohol industry representatives everywhere react similarly. They are adamant, as is Mr King, that alcohol marketing is designed merely to reinforce brand identity and maintain market share rather than encourage greater levels of consumption. This is because, in marketing-speak, it is a “mature market”; that is, there is little incentive to try to increase overall sales.

Analysts such as US marketing specialist Jean Kilbourne know that advertising has three main purposes: to help potential customers choose among competing brands; to increase sales among existing customers; and to recruit new customers — especially, in the case of alcohol, among emerging markets in the developing world.

Debate concerning the level of restriction on alcohol advertising has tended to be caught up in whether it can be shown that alcohol advertising lifts a population’s overall consumption. Studies (some funded by the industry) attempting to show a link are methodologically problematic and Mr King is right in saying that they have shown small and inconsistent results.

Another problem with them is that the crude consumption levels they measure are averages that tell us nothing about the impact of alcohol advertising on particular segments of the population. A decline in per capita consumption in New Zealand masks harmful drinking patterns in some sectors of the population, particularly youth, where the trend is to drink more alcohol, more often.

Eighteen to 19-year-olds are now our heaviest drinkers. There are many reasons for this. But the increase in amounts drunk by young people corresponds with a surge in marketing in youth environments such as in surfing magazines and music and other cultural events, where branding is carefully tailored to appeal to particular youth sub-cultures. Not only are alcohol marketers certain where the profits lie, but where the recruitment pool for a lifetime of drinking is.

Another category of research, studies into the effects of alcohol advertising on individual attitudes and behaviours, are reinforcing what is intuitive to most parents — that even if ads are not directly targeted at underage young people, constant exposure to marketing which presents drinking as a cool, glamorous, exciting activity helps ensure children have positive associations and expectations about alcohol, long before they start to drink.

Several recent US studies have demonstrated a clear link between exposure to different forms of alcohol advertising and drinking among adolescents. They reinforce conclusions of a recent major international WHO-sponsored review of effective alcohol policy: advertising is at least reinforcing drinking and instilling pro-drinking attitudes among young people.

But this research lags behind marketing trends, which have moved beyond the ads on television, radio and billboards that most of these studies are based on. Often alcohol marketing is a complex and innovative mix of competitions, sponsorships and promotions. It is appearing where young people congregate — and making good use of the internet and texting. Parents and other adults not keyed into youth environments are seldom aware of it.

Internationally there may be growing recognition of the need for governments to curtail alcohol promotion, but industry lobbying and influence is a huge barrier to the reassertion of regulation. Their position is simple: more regulation doesn’t work, the individual drinker (or parent) bears responsibility for any problems, it is simply a matter of learning responsible drinking habits. And they demand a place at the policy table to ensure minimum regulation.

This is to the great frustration of public health groups, which base much of their work on the recognition of the power of environmental influences in determining healthy choices.

Alcohol consumption ranks third of all leading risk factors for disease in the developed world, responsible for a far greater amount of overall harm to health and well-being than illegal drugs in New Zealand.

Alcohol is a legal product and legitimately advertised, industry groups tell us. However, it is also a regulated and controlled product.

Here’s something to ponder: if illegal drugs were advertised, how many would argue that advertising did not increase their use, but merely shift the balance of market share between a selection of drugs?

Anna Maxwell is a public health adviser at Alcohol Healthwatch.