Advertisers slapped with a ‘wet lettuce’ for breaking the alcohol code

Chris Pash
By Chris Pash | 12 April 2023
Credit: Heshan Perera via Unsplash

Advertisers found breaking the voluntary code governing alcohol commercials are given little more than a slap with a wet lettuce, says the Australian Medical Association (AMA) in a submission to the Responsible Alcohol Marketing Code Review.

Steve Robson, president of the AMA, says young people are especially vulnerable to alcohol marketing on digital platforms.

"The code, as it stands, is as porous as a sieve,” he says.

“It's voluntary, is completely reactive, and relies on complaints. On the rare occasion a breach of the code is found to have happened, the offenders are slapped with a wet lettuce. Give me a break."

Advertisers get to young people and circumvent the current industry-backed rules by using social media. 

Alcohol advertising on social media: a 1-year snapshot, a research project by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education and part funded by The Australian Research Council, found that alcohol advertising on Instagram and Facebook is linked to the online sale and delivery of alcohol directly into the home.

Over twelve months, 351 advertisers including Liquorland, Dan Murphy’s, BWS and Jimmy Brings and multinationals Bacardi Limited, Heineken N.V. and Diageo, placed an average of 765 alcohol ads each week on the Meta platforms.

Most alcohol retailer advertisements (91%) used a call-to-action button directing people to find out how to buy, while 66.7% used a Shop Now button to directly sell alcoholic products within the app, including animated catalogues with looping videos highlighting sales and promotions.

The AMA wants statutory regulations to ban advertising that young people respond to in the digital environment.

The doctors believe that alcohol marketing regulation should be independent from the industry and include meaningful sanctions for non-compliance.

They say that the current oversight -- the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) -- is voluntary, industry-run and does not have “real consequences” for marketers in breach.

The AMA says alcohol marketing regulation should cover a prohibition on the sponsorship of sporting events, youth music events and junior sports teams, clubs and programs by alcohol companies or brands. Organisations should be encouraged and assisted to source alternative funding.

Robson says digital marketing is soaked up by young people, and breaches of the code are hard to spot.

“Algorithms used by digital firms can target children even if they accidentally click on something that catches their attention,” he says.

"Young people are very savvy - they can navigate around age restrictions. So lip service to 'age restricted' marketing from big alcohol is just that - weasel words."

A study last year found young people  feel bombarded by digital marketing of harmful products on social media, which they describe as "creepy" and "manipulative".

VicHealth, Monash University and The University of Queensland partnered with 204 people aged 16-25 as citizen scientists to look at how alcohol, unhealthy food, sugary drinks and gambling products are promoted to them online, and how it made them feel.

“This experience was eye opening. I became aware of just how many advertisements I am exposed to throughout the day, and how the majority of ads are for unhealthy food/activities,” Rupert, aged 20, said.

Almost all (97%) of the ads seen and shared by the citizen scientists were “dark” to some degree -- only visible to those targeted by the advertisers and are not published on advertiser accounts where they can be viewed.

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