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Alcohol Advertising Regulations

Volume 553: debated on Tuesday 13 November 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Dobbin. I had several reasons for requesting the debate. The first relates to the need for appropriate rules to regulate the marketing and promotion of alcoholic products. It is also an opportunity to underline the important contribution that advertising makes to the UK economy and a chance to champion the creative industries. It is useful to have the debate to balance calls from those in some quarters who wish to see tighter regulations or even a complete ban on alcohol advertising.

My interest in the subject comes from a desire to support and champion the growth of the creative industries, and the importance of advertising as part of that. In difficult economic times, we need to recognise and support the value of the creative industries. They are one of our most important sectors and the UK is among the world leaders. Advertising alone contributes £7.8 billion to the UK economy and is the second biggest contributor to the UK’s creative industries, which accounts for 3% of gross domestic product. The UK advertising spend is forecast to grow by almost 4% this year. The value of advertising exports amounts to £1.5 billion-worth of services—nearly 2% of all exports. A large part of that value, over many years, relates to alcohol advertising.

The UK has shown the best innovation in the sector and our original thinking and advertising is admired throughout the world. I hope you will indulge me for a minute or two, Mr Dobbin, to remind you, the Minister and Members present of some of the iconic adverts that have been great successes in the UK, have been sold all over the world and have attracted international spend from product marketers. The Heineken adverts were extremely successful and innovative; a whole series was built around a humorous situation in which someone or something, after failing a task, would drink a glass of beer, which would improve their performance—be it shooting plastic ducks in a fairground or speaking English with a cut-glass accent. It all ended with the slogan that the beer

“refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach”.

I cannot do anything but intervene. When I was in my early teens, I found that Heineken reached parts that nothing else could reach. The only issue is whether that was exclusive to Heineken.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Perhaps he thought,

“I bet he drinks Carling Black Label”

could have been the slogan we use.

The hon. Gentleman is taking us on a merry dance down memory lane, and I am sure that he could keep our attention all afternoon. Some of us all too well remember precisely the same quality in adverts for cigarettes. I remember Terry Thomas and Eric Sykes advertising cigarettes—marvellous. I remember the John Player league and playing cricket sponsored by John Player. Surely, the hon. Gentleman is not saying that the advertising justifies the product regardless of what that product is. Would he honestly make a case today for cigarette advertising with the same passion, fury and determination he brings to alcohol?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that valid point. No, I am absolutely not proposing a repeal of the legislation and regulations, but there has been a reduction in the consumption of alcohol in recent years and advertising needs to reflect that. I shall come on to that point a little later.

As someone who consumed Top Totty that evening, I remember the beverage and the fuss made about its title. I understand that the attention drove the sales of Top Totty much higher than was ever predicted, which only demonstrates that such controversial decisions work against the objectives of those who wish to tighten the restrictions.

You may remember, Mr Dobbin, that before those helpful interventions I was trying to take you and hon. Members through some of the great adverts we remember from yesteryear. The Hofmeister bear is another example. Everyone was encouraged to “follow the bear”. Who could forget the Guinness toucan or the Carling Black Label series? “The Dam Busters” goalkeeper was one of my favourites.

One of Ireland’s finest poets, Brendan Behan, was employed by Guinness to write a slogan. He took the money, but could not come up with one until about a day before they were due to go to press. He finally came up with the ultimate slogan: “Guinness, it gets you drunk.” Does that not at least have the benefit of honesty and is that not what this is all about?

All advertising should of course be honest, but we need to accept the irony intended in some advertisements. If I am allowed to go on a little further, Mr Dobbin, I hope to cover some of those points.

All the adverts I mentioned and hon. Members referred to, and many others, were exported all over the world, creating income and wealth for the UK economy. Unfortunately, they could not be shown on television these days, even after the watershed when children would not be expected to be watching. The reason is that the industry responded to demands, not necessarily from the public, but from some lobby groups and politicians over the past decade or more. Those demands formed part of what was labelled the “nanny state”. I want to use today’s debate to celebrate the success of the adverts, and urge the industry and regulators to respond to the widest audience, rather than to those who seek to create a debate and overregulate.

We should not ignore the part that such adverts play in developing skills and supporting the creative industries. Hugh Hudson, director of the Courage Best adverts and the Cinzano series with the Leonard Rossiter and Lorraine Chase, went on to direct the multi-Oscar winning “Chariots of Fire”.

Alcohol advertising is well regulated and robust. The Advertising Standards Authority enforces advertising codes, written by the Committee of Advertising Practice and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice. The first considers print, outdoor, online and cinema, among other areas, whereas BCAP is responsible for television and radio. The industry has also set up its own marketing watchdog, the Portman Group, which upholds standards to an arguably higher level than the ASA. Ofcom also has a part to play and has recognised the benefits of the self-regulatory approach.

Broadcasting adverts are my main focus in the debate. The core principles behind the adverts are that they should not be targeted at under-18s or imply, condone or encourage immoderate, irresponsible or antisocial drinking. Specifically, there are restrictions on the types of programmes that can show adverts. They should not appeal to children or suggest that consumption would make the drinker a better person. Although I support such views, it is, as ever, the interpretation of the rules that creates the difficulties. The areas that I have just outlined are where the iconic adverts fall today.

When it is said that Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach, it could be suggesting that it makes someone a better person or that the ducks that shot back in the fairground could make alcohol appealing to children. Similarly, the Hofmeister bear, could, it is argued, encourage children to consume alcohol, as could the famous Guinness toucan. The Carling Black Label advert suggested that individual performance was enhanced through drinking the beer.

The interpretation of the rules is rather harsh. Surely, people recognise a slogan as part of a humorous advert and do not take it literally. Do they really think that the beer made the difference, or that the Hofmeister bear or the Guinness toucan would drive young children to drink?

Research from MacKintosh and Moodie in 2010 found that exposure to alcohol marketing has not been proven to cause children to drink. It did not find an association between 13-year-olds’ awareness of alcohol marketing and the onset of drinking or the volume of alcohol they consumed two years later. Even if a link is proven, it is likely to be small and outweighed by other factors, such as family environment, peer behaviour, socio-economic status and personal issues.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation research concludes that parents are the most important influencers when it comes to the potential consumption of alcohol among children. Furthermore, the interpretations of the rules apply also to the promotion of weaker lager and prevent it from being marketed as a better alternative.

In credit to the industry, it self-regulates effectively. The Portman Group seeks to drive standards higher, and I hope that this debate will show that the commentary is not only one way and that a common sense approach is needed. Further evidence of a responsible approach is shown in the drive over recent years to reduce the alcoholic strength of drinks. One of the newer Heineken adverts is one such example. It depicts a young man drinking one bottle at the start of the evening and then water for the rest of the night. Unlike his heavy drinking friends, he goes on to gain a partner. That results in the slogan:

“Sunrise belongs to moderate drinkers.”

Although that seems a reasonable line, the advert was banned on UK television because it was judged that it was wrong to link even moderate drinking with social success or sexual attraction. Surely, that is an example of a positive step by the industry. Although it is showing that is ready to respond to demands, it is not succeeding with its responsible promotion. It is also ironic that that advert was the original background to the Heineken campaign that I mentioned earlier. The brewer’s objective was to market a weaker beer, over its premium lager. As a result, it sought to present its product as a lighter, refreshing drink that was also weaker. That is what the slogan was trying to depict.

Over-regulation and over-interpretation are evident. Some lobby groups have called for the French “Loi Evin” model, which is a complete ban on alcohol advertising on television and a significant restriction on radio and printed media. The policy was introduced in January 1991. Even the French anti-alcohol groups now accept that the effect of the law was weak at best. The French Parliament has concluded that it was ineffective in reducing high-risk drink patterns.

The consumption of alcohol per unit has reduced by 20% since 2005, with all age groups falling. The lowest decrease is among the over-65 age group. Consumption is at its lowest since 1999.

Breweries are reducing the strength of their alcohol, too. Stella Artois, Budweiser and Becks have reduced their alcohol content from 5% to 4.8% ABV. Although that may be due to tax reasons, there has, none the less, been a fall. Surely, if society wants to encourage drinkers to lower their consumption of alcohol, the industry must be allowed to promote lower strength drinks effectively and creatively to consumers. That demonstrates that the management and control of alcohol consumption is much broader. It is important to balance calls for greater restriction with evidence that is available elsewhere. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Treasury and the Department of Health have equally important parts to play in that regard. It is important to recognise, too, the pragmatic role that has been played by the Minister. He recognises the need for controls, yet understands the positive opportunity that appropriate advertising can play in a broader sense.

No one would deny the success of the Olympics in promoting fitness and health among the population, yet Heineken was a lead sponsor. Appropriate advertising was used to promote wider well-being. Alcohol sponsorship accounts for 12% of sports sponsorship—£300 million in total, of which £50 million goes to grass-roots sports.

Beer generates £8 billion in UK tax revenue each year, and the beer and pub sector supports almost 1 million jobs. The issues involved are far broader than just health. Health is exceptionally important and central, but the requirements of DCMS, the Treasury and the wider community must be paramount in deciding on the regulations.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Dobbin, as the Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

Formerly. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) on securing this important debate, on all the work that he does in this House on many issues, especially Welsh issues, and on the work that he does on behalf of his constituents. I also thank all hon. Members for their contributions, including my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) and the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound).

It is pertinent to say here that the hon. Member for Ealing North takes health issues incredibly seriously. Last night, I got on the tube at about 11 pm, after the votes, and I saw the hon. Gentleman clutching a bottle as he made his way home. I looked carefully and saw that it was a bottle of innocent’s freshly squeezed fruit juice.

It was a shaming moment indeed. As the hon. Gentleman was discovered, I decided that I should tell the Chamber the story.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan for giving us a tour of some of the great television adverts. When he mentioned Carling Black Label, I was reminded of another story. It might be apocryphal—perhaps the hon. Member for Ealing North will tell me whether or not it is true. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) is famous for making remarks during the State Opening of Parliament. On one such occasion, when Black Rod had knocked on the door and marched towards the Speaker to summon the Commons to the Lords, there was a dignified pause as he drew himself up to his full height. The hon. Gentleman was heard to say, “I’ll bet he drinks Carling Black Label.” It just goes to show how some alcohol adverts have pervaded our culture.

None the less, this is a serious subject. First, it gives us an opportunity to discuss the British advertising industry. I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan when he raised the matter in oral questions that I would not lose an opportunity to praise the strength and diversity of our advertising industry. Advertising has contributed £6 billion to the UK and roughly £1.5 billion of exports. It employs some of our finest artists, designers and writers. It also plays a crucial role in supporting our creative industries. Without advertising, we would not have the vibrant newspaper, radio, film or television sectors that we have in the UK today. We might not have “Downton Abbey”, “Father Ted” or even “I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here.” Without doubt, advertising makes a contribution to our culture.

However, with the great power that the advertising sector holds and the large audiences that newspapers, radio and TV programmes can reach, there comes responsibility. The advertising industry is very good at regulating itself. The Committee of Advertising Practice draws up codes that are fair and strong for both broadcast and non-broadcast advertising, and the Advertising Standards Agency, which I should mention is 50 years old this year and thus only a few years older than the hon. Member for Ealing North, does an excellent job of administering those codes. Both the CAP and the ASA help to ensure that advertising in the UK is legal, decent, honest and truthful. We work closely with the ASA as well as with Ofcom to make sure that rules on advertising continue to provide the appropriate levels of consumer protection, especially for children and young people.

It is important that we take the power of alcohol advertising seriously. The majority of our fellow citizens enjoy their drink in a mature and responsible manner, but we know that alcohol harm amounts to something like £21 billion a year and that something like half of all violent crime can be attributed to alcohol. It is therefore important that alcohol advertising is properly regulated.

My colleagues in the Home Office recently launched an alcohol strategy to counter irresponsible drinking behaviour and the Department of Health launched its responsibility deal to drive greater industry responsibility and action to reduce alcohol misuse. The CAP broadcasting code simply means that alcohol adverts should not condone such misuse. Among other things, alcohol adverts must not imply, condone or encourage irresponsible or immoderate drinking; they must not imply that alcohol can contribute to someone’s popularity or confidence; they must not link alcohol with sexual activity or sexual success; and they must not portray alcohol as indispensable or taking priority in life. Scheduling and placement restrictions mean that adverts cannot be placed adjacent to programmes likely to appeal to audiences under 18 or, for non-broadcast adverts, in a medium where more than 25% of the audience are under 18.

I understand the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan that, as a general rule, too much red tape can stifle creativity, but I have to say that these regulations on alcohol advertising do not seem to be onerous or excessive. They simply seem to be the kind of rules that any responsible alcohol manufacturers, or indeed advertisers, would enforce on their own promotional material. In fact, it is probably worth noting that a number of the rules on both the targeting of alcohol adverts and the behaviour demonstrated within them are covered by the EU’s directive on audiovisual media services, so these are Europe-wide regulations and it is obviously important that we comply with them.

There is something about the mention of the EU’s directive on audiovisual media services that makes me leap to my feet immediately. The Minister is making an extremely interesting point when he talks about the stimulus to creativity and in some ways he is almost making the case for regulation being a stimulus to creativity. Hugh Hudson was mentioned earlier, and he went from a low point of making commercials to the high point of making the Labour party election broadcast that is known as “Kinnock—The Movie”; it was not massively successful, but it is remembered with great affection by those of us who were around at the time.

The point that I wish to make to the Minister is this. Are we not at a stage where the word “irony”, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) earlier, is the predominant factor within the industry? I am thinking of the John Smith’s beer adverts, such as the “top bombing” one and the one where Peter Kay kicks the ball out of the ground. Are we now in a situation where we perhaps need to stand back a bit from regulation, because the industry’s own self-regulation—particularly in the area of irony—appears to be moving very much in one direction? As someone who, despite appearances to the contrary, is not actually a drinker, that seems rather a healthy way to proceed, with self-regulation, and alcohol being advertised in an ironic sense but also in a way that recognises that it is a pretty central part of our lives.

Yes, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that irony is important, and irony is something that we in Britain do very well. If it was something that we could charge for, it would probably be a very important export industry for us, and irony is also a key element in a lot of alcohol advertising.

I will not endorse any particular product. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a particular brand of drink, but I was struck by the irony of watching what I thought was a rather creative advert for an alcohol product that I happened to catch on TV the other day. It involved a man with a body shape not dissimilar to my own wearing a small pair of swimming trunks and marching down the beach as if he owned the place. That to me screamed “irony”, but it also screamed “creativity”.

The Minister mentioned the EU’s directive on audiovisual media services, which has a Europe-wide application. He will remember that I referred to the “Sunrise” ad, which has been banned in the UK but has not been banned across Europe. If the directive is the reason for that ad being banned, does that not lead us to the obvious conclusion that the directive is being interpreted more harshly in the UK than elsewhere in Europe?

I will have to look carefully at the particular advert that my hon. Friend mentions. Without wishing to get too partisan, as it were, I must say that the ASA is one of the finest regulators in the world of advertising. It looks at issues very carefully and publishes detailed judgments. Although it is normally the case that European regulations complied with in one jurisdiction are complied with in others, it may be different for advertising and I will check how that directive applies. In fact, I am sure that it is different for advertising, because some countries, such as the Scandinavian countries, have much tougher rules on advertising products that are deemed to be harmful than other countries.

My hon. Friend has made his case that we should try not to stifle creativity in the advertising of alcohol. He has even said that doing so could lead to an increase in investment in the UK advertising sector. However, that argument has to be balanced against the fact that a relaxation in existing restrictions could result in an increase in irresponsible or under-age drinking, which is something that the Government are very keen to prevent.

We are at an extraordinary confluence in history where we have the opportunity, just across the channel, to see for the first time ever the consequences of a 160% increase in alcohol duty and a 20% increase in the average cost of a glass of French beer. We have an opportunity to study our Gallic cousins to see what the effect of those changes is. Will the Minister’s Department be looking in any way at the French experience in the light of the “Hollande impôts”, to see whether there are lessons to be learned or taxes to be avoided?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point about what is happening in France. As far as I am aware, a number of different Departments are looking at that example: the Treasury, to see what it does to revenue; the Department of Health, to see what it does to levels of drinking; and no doubt the Home Office will also be looking, to see whether it has any effect on crime levels. However, we in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport only focus on it in relation to advertising and the advertising industry.

I am wary of the time, Mr Dobbin, so I will conclude. First, may I say that the ASA and the advertising sector as a whole have always been open to dialogue and quick to respond to issues? If they have been presented with clear evidence that advertising is socially indecent or dishonest, they have been quick to react. Secondly, self-regulatory bodies such as the ASA can react much more speedily to changes in public opinion, changes in technology or changes in technique than other bodies. It is much easier to update the CAP code than it is to change UK law. Thirdly, what must not be overlooked in the current economic climate is the fact that self-regulation of the industry comes at no cost to the taxpayer.

I support the current regime on alcohol advertising, even though my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan is concerned that there may be one or two examples of the regulation being interpreted in a heavy-handed fashion. I sympathise with his opinion that rules and regulations can stymie creativity, but with regard to alcohol advertising the rules that are in place strike me as being responsible and not something that this Government would seek to water down. Nevertheless, I am grateful to him for giving the House a chance to remind all hon. Members of the success of the UK advertising industry, its enormous contribution to the UK economy and its support for our creative industries.