Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Gemma McKenna on how the drinks marketing code is a 'minefield'

Published:  09 November, 2012

The drinks industry is doing a cracking job on self-regulating its marketing to make sure it's responsible, thanks to the Portman Group's leadership. But it's definitely something of a minefield.

It becomes even more challenging with the beady eyes of the health bodies turned in this direction, and a government who is toying with the idea of greater intervention. So where does that leave producers?

Attending a briefing of the Portman Group's new code of practice on marketing yesterday, alongside the biggest names in drinks, I couldn't help but feel a tad discomfited at some of the new guidelines.

The group has always sought to protect under 18s from alcohol marketing, but this time around it has tightened up rules on how images of people who are (or look like they are) under 25 can be used. Now they simply cannot be featured in a "significant role or be seen drinking or holding alcohol".

Cue a few raised eyebrows from producers around the table. While none of them for a second condone underage drinking, this does make things even more complicated.

Portman offered a series of photos as guidance - so for example - if a drinks brand sponsors a music festival and there's a picture of a crowd of young-looking people (under 25) enjoying themselves, surrounded by branding, then the brand itself can't use it. But if a news site wanted to publish the same pic taken by its own photographer, which might demonstrate 'Glastonbury revellers enjoying the sunshine' on its front page, then it's free to do so.

Consider this: one football fan/producer in the audience asked about Wednesday night's historic Celtic 2:1 win over Barcelona. The team is sponsored by Tennent's Lager, and since the winning goal was scored by 18-year-old Tony Watt, did that mean the brand would not be allowed, under the new code rules, to use the image of Watt celebrating in his team shirt in their marketing? In short, yes. "We wouldn't expect the producer to use that image in any way," said Kay Perry, Portman Group's head of regulatory affairs.

Henry Ashworth, the Portman Group's chief executive, admitted: "There will be circumstances where we think it's unsuitable [to use such an image]. It may seem unfair or inconsistent, but it shows we are a responsible industry. It also endorses how self-regulation works."

What's more, some brands main consumers are aged between 18-24, and are avid social media fans. Many of them interact with brands by posting pictures of themselves enjoying the beverage of their choice on the brand-owned website or Facebook page. But where they look under 25 brands have to delete them all. Which has a major risk attached: alienating your consumer.

So it's a tough one for producers, but ultimately demonstrates that they are taking their responsibilities very seriously indeed.

Who knows what the UK-wide sponsorship code will bring when it comes out in May next year. Ashworth reassured attendees that the government does not back a comprehensive ban (as called for by some health bodies) on drinks firms sponsoring sports or music events. But with some of these guidelines already causing consternation, you can't help but wonder if an unwanted side-effect will be that drinks brands become more wary of sponsorship, especially if the rules become overly irksome.