Lauri Beekmann: Fate of alcohol advertising – a matter of time

Alcohol advertising has been a frontline in the alcohol policy discussion. Though studies are saying that banning advertising is not the most effective measure to cut drinking it has a symbolic meaning for the industry. If they loose the right to advertise they will loose their instrument to build their image which have been a cornerstone for liberal alcohol policy. Through advertising alcohol is presented and seen as a part of culture, it is tied to moderation and philanthropy. Through the quantity of advertising the industry is deciding the tone how alcohol is discussed in societies. If they loose the right to do that news about alcohol related harm will surface and alcohol industry wont have a tool to communicate with the public.

I do believe that alcohol advertising will be banned, eventually. And I believe the industry understands that also. To postpone that as much as possible, they are willing to make some compromises to prove their responsibility. We tend to criticize industries self regulation by showing that they are making minor changes with the content of the ads but not with the quantity of ads. Well they might do even that. In Estonia we have a time limit for alcohol advertising until 9 pm. But the beer producers agreed by themselves and with the TV companies not to show their ads during TV shows and movies that start before 9 pm and last also after that, up until 10 pm.

With this change they might not loose much but their playing ground gets smaller and they know that.

Couple of years ago an amendment was approved that forced a warning message on every alcohol ad in Estonia: “Beware! This is alcohol. Alcohol can harm your health!”. Its a small change but again, symbolic. Every time they build their image through these ads, trying to distance their product from harm and sickness, they are forced to remind that their product is tied to these sicknesses. These changes, that might feel small to us at the time of decision, are milestones towards total ban.

Again, I believe industry understands that also and I would´nt be surprised if in the end they will take the initiative and end traditional advertising themselves. What comes next? Who knows exactly, but as Vasaris Oržekauskas from media agency UM said at the alcohol advertising monitoring seminar organized by NordAN and Lithuanian Alcohol and Tobacco Control Coalition in Vilnius this May, industry will find new ways to communicate. We know very well that through social media, their communication has already changed quite dramatically. Most of it does´nt apply to any legal regulation as it is not defined as advertising. So, while loosing ground at some places they win new in another. But its different. Mostly it is not the kind that has created this positive image that alcohol today has thanks to advertising that portrays certain way of living and understanding what entertainment should mean. They have kidnapped whole concepts and words. When we say neutral word “drinking”, people mostly understand “drinking alcohol”. When we say “to party”, people tend to think something that has to do also with drinking.

By advertising their products, advertisers have developed new understandings and associations that has crept into our languages, lifestyles and ways we regulate our lives. To undo that takes time. Can we be satisfied with the pace we have managed to work toward stopping alcohol advertising? Of course not. Advertising a substance that is carcinogenic, teratogenic and addictive is immoral and wrong and should be stopped today.

The reality for the moment is that we have to build this up step by step. When we look at the whole picture for instance in Nordic and Baltic countries, we notice both successes and challenges. Sweden, which has TV ban for alcohol advertising, struggles with UK based channels which still advertises to the Swedish audience. Latvia has approved this month an amendment that bans all outdoor advertising (coming to force in July 2014). Every country in this region is working with it and we are going to see important developments. And it is of course our duty, as civil society representatives, to push for change.

Have a look at this overview on the situation in advertising regulation in Nordic and Baltic countries:

Lauri Beekmann is Secretary General of NordAN