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Ads like these may become a thing of the past
Ads like these may become a thing of the past

A sobering thought

LIQUOR NEWS

The Media Online - May 10th 2011, 16:12

The threat of a ban on alcohol advertising looms large – and has massive implication to our industry. Tanya Farber and Jeremy Daniel investigate. 

If it’s dry but you can drink it, you’re probably holding a Savannah. If it’s going down a treat “met eish” on a balmy night, it’s an ice-cold Klipdrift you’ve got. And if you’re screaming with excitement in a walk-in fridge while your female counterparts get hysterical over a closet full of shoes, you’re most probably knee-deep in Heineken.

Alcohol adverts have, over the years, become an art form unto themselves. For a public tickled by skits, or influenced by the lifestyle branding that now dominates the commercials scene, such images are ubiquitous – and, many would argue, entirely harmless.

Behind the scenes of the media industry, however, a conflict is brewing. At the heart of it is a proposed ban on alcohol advertising that is causing panic in an already-nervous media industry for whom advertising revenue equals livelihood.

It began with a proposal on limited legislation during late 2008 that would see a restriction on “any liquor product advertisement or any advertisement depicting a liquor product visible on a public road, or permit it to be so displayed”.

But, with the extreme death toll on South African roads continuing unabated, Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi proposed, in November 2010, a total ban on alcohol advertising, saying: “I am not sure what form it [the proposal] will take and obviously it will include advertising.” He said this move would form part of an intensive campaign, of which the ban would only be one element.

The statement sent shock waves through the media and liquor industries, with outcries from all sides.

Robin Chalmers, head of media and communications at South African Breweries, acknowledges the “unacceptable level of alcohol abuse in South Africa”, but states that “research, both in South Africa and abroad, does not show any convincing evidence that banning advertising leads to reduced per capita alcohol consumption. Nor does it reduce alcohol abuse; nor does it encourage or convince non-drinkers to drink.”

Liquor industry commentator and wine writer Norman Macfarlane agrees, citing government’s response as a classic “knee-jerk reaction” from government, and likens it to the proposed changes to the liquor laws that the City of Cape Town introduced on January 1 this year.

“We have such a problem with alcohol abuse in this country,” he said, “that it’s important to be seen to be doing something. Whether it’s helping or not is not that relevant.”

Enver Groenewald, GM advertising revenue at Avusa, provides some sobering perspective on how devastating the ban will be for media.

“At present, the alcohol industry spends approximately R1.3 billion per annum (4.5% of total advertising spend) on advertising across various media, and the prospect of this summarily being withdrawn from the economy is naturally of great concern.”

The legislation, which is unlikely to go before parliament this session but which will probably be tabled during 2012, is seen as the correct route by many inside and outside of government circles.

“The level of drinking and driving in South Africa remains inordinately and unacceptably high. Any effort or initiative that attempts to reduce the awareness and the craving for drinking whilst driving is supported since many innocent lives are lost needlessly,” says Ashref Ismail of the Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC).

But, argues Groenewald, the effects on the media industry will be widespread. “A ban on alcohol advertising will, without a doubt, lead to job losses along the value chain from producer (particularly smaller independents, such as wine estates) to advertising agency to media agency to media owner,” he says.

And, he adds, while the argument can be made that some of these economic players may be able to absorb the loss, “the absence of proof of an overwhelming and short- to medium-term resulting social benefit makes such anticipated economic casualties unnecessary.”

RTMC’s Ismail acknowledges the potential job losses, but believes “one has to weigh the loss of jobs against the loss of lives, which really is a no-brainer”.

Dr Sebastian van As, head of trauma at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, has been vociferous about the effects of alcohol abuse on the lives of children. Working at the coal face of injuries to small children, he says that interpersonal violence and accidents increase exponentially when alcohol is involved.

So, what does this have to do with advertising? Van As says that drinking is highly mainstream in South Africa, and is “considered a joke” – to the extent that people boast about how much they drink. Advertising plays an integral role in the mainstreaming of alcohol consumption as a way of life, and augments the idea that it is normal to consume vast amounts of it.

In his line of work, he has seen the devastating effects of this. From Macfarlane’s perspective, however, the ban is not as clear-cut as this.

“What will happen to a 600-word editorial written about a new wine? Will that be illegal? What about Wine magazine? Will it be forced to shut down? Will websites be legal for people to view overseas, but not in South Africa?” he asks.

With the ban on tobacco advertising as a predecessor, it has been difficult for researchers to calculate reliably whether the ban itself made an impact on consumption of cigarettes. The World Bank estimates that there are 67 million smokers in sub-Saharan Africa, and that the practice of smoking is on the increase in the developing world. But, might South Africa’s contribution to this regional figure be higher were it not for the ban?

An account executive who works on a major alcohol brand and wishes to remain unnamed, speculates that alcohol advertising might have to “go underground and create new and exciting ways to market itself” – much like tobacco has done over the last 10 years. Cigarette marketing never completely disappeared; it was simply pushed underground with, for example, underground invite-only parties, product placements and free giveaways. In essence, long-legged blondes in branded clothing start giving out samples at clubs while the carefree yuppies on yachts stopped smoking on the silver screen before the main feature.

If alcohol advertising faces the same future, the biggest losers will be the media companies. “The tobacco companies saved a fortune by not being forced to advertise to compete,” explains Macfarlane. He says the big players don’t mind too much as they retain their market share, while “the media and the small players battle to survive”.

Sports teams, too – from amateur all the way through to professional – will suffer from a dramatic loss of revenue in the form of sponsorship advertising, while Groenewald says we can expect “legal constraints so tight that they reduce wine, whiskey and brandy festivals to no more than three people and a bottle in the boot”.

But the government understands that it’s far easier to police the media than it is to enforce closing times on bars and shebeens, and that banning alcohol advertising is a visible, high-profile stand to take.

For an industry already reeling from global recession, legislation that sees a further R1.3 billion annually evaporate in a total ban would be devastating. For those with a vested interest in reducing ills like a high road-death toll and interpersonal violence, it is a solid way to start.

The situation has placed the media industry in the unenviable position of having to argue on the one hand to government that advertising has little effect on people’s consumption patterns, while arguing on the other to the liquor industry that it needs to carry on advertising in the face of the growing threats that it faces.

Whichever way the proposed ban goes, there’ll be something to ‘wine’ about – and only time will tell from which quarter it will come. 

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