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New industry ad ‘rules’ are nothing more than window-dressing

What do you do when the threat of government regulation is heading your way? If you’re the alcohol industry, you introduce new ‘rules’ to give the appearance that you care about controlling the placement of your marketing, but design them carefully so they actually do very little to shift the status quo.

The industry’s ABAC Scheme has updated their content code to include ‘Placement Rules’. In summary, the rules require alcohol advertisers to comply with existing placement codes (for example, the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice and Outdoor Media Association Alcohol Guidelines); use age restriction controls where available to exclude minors; place ads only where the audience is reasonably expected to comprise at least 75% adults; avoid placing ads with programs or content primarily aimed at minors; and avoid sending alcohol ads to minors via e-mail.

Well, duh.

They’re hardly the “cutting-edge” or “robust and effective” rules that ABAC tried to make them out to be. These new rules are unlikely to reduce young people’s exposure to alcohol ads in any meaningful way. It’s no wonder industry groups, such as Alcohol Beverages Australia and the Winemakers’ Federation, have enthusiastically welcomed them.

Consider, for example, the new ‘rule’ that alcohol ads may only be placed where the audience is reasonably expected to comprise at least 75% adults on television, digital, radio, cinema or print media. For starters, young people aged 0 – 17 years only account for around 22% of the Australian population. If you then take out the babies and little kids, less than 10% of the population are aged 10 – 17 years. It would need to be a very child-oriented program to exceed the 25% threshold for minors. But even a seemingly modest proportion of the TV audience can represent hundreds of thousands of young viewers. For example, OzTam TV viewing data from 2016-17 indicates that 266,000 young people aged 0 – 17 years watched the Masterchef Grand Finale, which represented 15% of the audience. That’s still a lot of kids. International research suggests that voluntary audience threshold restrictions are too permissive to meaningfully protect large numbers of young people from exposure, difficult and expensive to monitor, and breaches occur.

The use of woolly wording such as “primarily aimed at minors” means that alcohol advertising can continue in programs that are popular with young people but are not necessarily ‘primarily aimed’ at them. So, as long as programs are popular with adults as well as kids, it’s ok to advertise alcohol in them.

The new rules don’t address significant gaps and weaknesses in the self-regulatory system. For example, the ABAC Code still does not apply to alcohol sponsorship; there are no restrictions on alcohol ads in outdoor media (e.g. billboards, bus stops) except within 150m of a school gate; the loophole allowing alcohol ads in weekend sport on TV remains; and there are no penalties for advertisers who breach the code.

ABAC have even added a fun new ‘no fault breach’ clause which appears to allow alcohol advertisers to pass the blame and responsibility to someone else for breaches. More good news for alcohol advertisers!

We see this as just another sign that the alcohol industry and ABAC are fearful of future independent regulation of alcohol marketing. In the 5 years since we launched the Alcohol Advertising Review Board in response to concerns about the ineffectiveness of the self-regulatory system, we’ve seen the ABAC Scheme:

  • Introduce an Independent Chair (hand-picked by ABAC);
  • Conduct research to ‘confirm’ they’re meeting community standards;
  • Announce new signatories, including Woolworths, Coles Liquor Group and Coca-Cola Amatil;
  • Launch a community ‘awareness’ campaign; and
  • Release ‘best practice advice for responsible digital marketing of alcohol’ in 2013 and a ‘strengthened’ code in 2014.

While ABAC may claim they’re addressing community concerns around alcohol marketing, all signs point to a fear of government regulation.

Failure to cover placement has long been a criticism of ABAC. Given how weak the new ‘placement rules’ are, this criticism largely stands. There is a clear need for comprehensive controls on the content, placement and volume of alcohol marketing, but alcohol advertisers should not be the ones designing those controls. Don’t be fooled by the window dressing.

Julia Stafford

Julia Stafford

Julia Stafford is the Alcohol Program Manager at Cancer Council Western Australia.

Hannah Pierce

Hannah Pierce

Hannah Pierce is the Alcohol Policy and Research Coordinator at Cancer Council Western Australia.

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