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How to market alcohol where alcohol marketing is banned

An article published on the alcohol industry website Just-Drinks.com provides an interesting insight into how alcohol companies may respond to increased restrictions on alcohol marketing in order to “continue to connect with consumers and achieve brand saliency in these so-called ‘dark’ markets”.

The advice offered in the Just-Drinks article is directed at alcohol companies wishing to promote their products in countries where ‘the lights have been turned off’, that is, where traditional forms of advertising have been banned.

In recognition of the substantial evidence linking alcohol advertising to underage drinking, several countries have restrictions on alcohol marketing in place. France for example, under the rules laid out in its ‘Loi Evin’, bans alcohol sports sponsorship, TV and cinema advertising.

While the author acknowledges alcohol marketing restrictions have been introduced “in response to public health concerns about over-consumption and underage drinking”, the focus of the article is limited to circumventing regulations and no reference is made to the protection of children.

Sponsorship is suggested as a suitable alternative vehicle for promotion, where it is allowed, because “it offers an opportunity for players with deep pockets to sustain awareness and connect meaningfully with fans”. In countries where alcohol sponsorship is not permitted, companies are encouraged to explore the promotion of “logical brand extensions like low/no-alcohol ranges”. It will be interesting to observe the promotional presence of such products during the forthcoming European Football Championships, to be held in France this summer.

Another pearl of wisdom on offer is to pursue “cleverly-negotiated product placement”. Here, references are made to James Bond movies and the US hit series Mad Men as examples of effective brand promotions through product placement.

While many of these recommendations will stir up memories of tobacco company tactics in the early days of tobacco advertising restrictions, perhaps the most contemporary similarity can be found in the advice to “innovate in packaging… ensure your brand stands out on the back bar or the supermarket shelf”. Tobacco packaging has been labelled the ‘final frontier’ for tobacco marketers operating in ‘dark markets’, an example being pink, shiny cigarette boxes emulating perfume packaging, seemingly targeting young females. Australia has led the world in tackling such promotions through the introduction of plain packaging for tobacco products in 2012, with the UK set to follow suit later this year.

So how can community and public health groups face up to the challenge of Big Alcohol trying to cheat the system?

Common sense would tell us to ask tobacco control colleagues to share their experiences. If the alcohol industry is adopting the tobacco industry playbook, surely we should be exploring tactics used by anti-smoking campaigners.

The World Health Organization has long recognised the subversive activities of the tobacco industry and has established a framework for action on defending the public interest from tobacco tactics. Activities within this framework include monitoring the tobacco industry, informing and involving the public about their activities. Continued monitoring of alcohol industry activities and sharing findings must remain a core duty for public health groups.

Of course, our job is made so much easier when Big Alcohol gives us a sneaky peak at its playbook.

Katherine Brown

Katherine is the Director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS), based in London, UK.

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