New rules on placement of alcohol ads loom large

Rosie Baker
By Rosie Baker | 9 August 2017

"Significant" changes to the self-regulation of alcohol ads are coming into play in November.

The new developments now relate to the actual placement of ads and not just the content - which is a new move.

The Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) governs the content alcohol ads, but until now, media placement has been governed by a range of bodies including the OMA Alcohol Guidelines and TV industry code of practice. Until now catch up TV did not fall under the TV industry guidelines which left a major gap in the regulation.

ABAC's code complements the AANA Code of Ethics and is designed to help advertisers and their agencies make sure their communications adhere to the rules and regulations.

The new ABAC code has been introduced as a result of three driving forces; an increase in marketers using “non-traditional” media (digital and on-demand video) which have no specific guidelines; pressure from policy makers and increased public complaints over ad placements, says Professor the Hon Michael Lavarch, who is the ABAC’s chief adjudicator.

“Policy makers and the community are increasingly concerned about where alcohol advertising appears, particularly when it appears in programmes or content aimed at young people," ABAC chair Alan Ferguson says.

"While it generally occurs due to programming errors or a lack of control over where an ad appears, when an alcohol ad appears during a cartoon, it concerns parents and gives the impression that alcohol marketers are targeting children.

“It's important all marketers take care in deciding where their ads will appear.”

There are five major rule changes coming into effect in November, as well as the introduction of what ABAC is calling a ‘No Fault Breach’. This overarching shift means that if an advertiser has been deemed to have done everything within their means, but still falls foul of the code due to factors outside their control like a TV network placing ads within the wrong programmes, they will not be penalised or listed as breaching the code.

Ignorance is not bliss

Lavarch expects a “significant list of breaches in the first few months”, but says "the onus is on marketers" to demonstrate to the ABAC Panel that placement rules have been met.

"You'll be deemed guilty until you can prove innocent in terms of making a no fault breach. Simply saying 'I didn't know and I didn't enquire' will not be enough to cut it in terms of ruling for a no fault breach.

"There are people that believe there should be no alcohol marketing at all, and that self regulation guidelines aren't worth the paper they are written on,” he says, urging compliance with the new code so that the industry can maintain strong self-regulation.

The five major rule changes are:

  • Ads must still comply with all other codes (the OMA and TV guidelines) but ABAC will no longer defer to other media specific codes, but will instead make its own judgement. 
  • Advertisers must use age restrictions if they are available on the platform being used. For instance on Facebook, where advertisers can specify the age bracket able to see ads. Lavarch says a surprising number of advertisers still do not do this. "It's surprising that we do get complaints about age restrictions and find they haven't been used,” he says. “It's black and white in terms of whether it occurred or not and it will be a breach of the code [if age restrictions are not utilised where possible]."
  • Ads must ensure that 75% of the audience is adult. “If we get a complaint along these lines, we will ask the brand what research they have or demographic data they have for why that medium was chosen, and if they can provide information that shows a 75% adult audience,” says Lavarch. “If there is no data then we'll [ask advertisers] to demonstrate why they think it has 75% adult reach.”  The ABAC panel will then have to make a judgement, which Lavarch says will be “case by case”.
  • ABAC will make a judgement if adverts are placed within programs or content primarily aimed at minors, 
  • Electronic direct mail now comes under ABAC’s reach, for instance if a 10-year old receives an email from a bottle shop. “To date these [complaints] have been dismissed because they were about placement, not content. Now we’ll ask ‘how did this come about, how did a 10-year-old end up with the direct email?’." Advertisers will not be penalised, however, if it arises because a minor has entered incorrect date of birth information. 

What does the ABAC code do?

As well as a public complaints process, the ABAC scheme includes a pre-vetting component on the premise that "it's better to make sure an ad is on the right side of the line before it hits the public", according to Lavarch. It will not be mandatory (or practical) for media plans to be submitted for pre-vetting, but ABAC will offer advertisers guidance ahead of plans being executed.

The code also covers user generated content that appears on a platform or page controlled by the brand and product placement.

It disallows portraying excessive or rapid consumption, misuse or abuse of alcohol or irresponsible alcohol-related behaviour. Brands cannot promote alcohol in a way that suggests alcohol will change the mood or environment, or lead to success - social or sexual.

The other core area of the code covers the responsibility of marketing to minors and Lavarch’s rule of thumb for advertisers is "simply don't feature people under 25 in ads".

ABAC also provided a compliance check-list for advertisers. A copy of the new ABAC Responsible Alcohol Marketing Code is available on the ABAC website. 

Last month a Vodka Cruisers Instagram campaign was banned for breaching advertising codes. The booze brand was called out for advertising and marketing to children after it posted an image of a minor wearing sparkly make-up.

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