Alcohol advertising watchdog hits back after attack on lockdown booze promotions

The industry body overseeing alcohol advertising has been branded ineffective and self-serving amid accusations that marketers have exploited the COVID pandemic to sell more product.

In a withering attack, Cancer Council Victoria claimed the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) was ignoring the dangers of excessive drinking and allowing brands to treat the pandemic ‘like Christmas’.

Cancer Council said complaints about ads from Travelling Vineyard Australia (left) and BWS were dismissed

It called on the government to draw up independent rules to control alcohol advertising.

ABAC dismissed the criticisms as misleading and selective.

In its report, ‘Giving the ok to Stay in, Drink Up’, Cancer Council claimed COVID-themed alcohol ads promoting ‘survival packs’ and ‘isolation deals’ were waved through by ABAC with little concern to the potential damage the pandemic was having on Australians.

Furthermore, a scheme managed and funded by the same companies whose aim is to drive sales was like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, the advocacy group said.

The conclusions of the Cancer Council emerged at an awkward time for the advertising industry and its approach to alcohol after a Mumbrella special report exposed how staff at all levels are being impacted by a deep-rooted drinking culture.

Dismissed: A ‘survival’ Magnum and Queens Wine ad

Cancer Council Alcohol Working Group chair Julia Stafford said: “There’s no doubt that many individuals and families in our communities were experiencing significant amount of stress and anxiety due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Yet the ABAC Panel decided that promoting alcohol via isolation deals lockdown survival  packs was no different to referencing Christmas, this summer of footy finals.

“Alcohol ads including the phrases Stay In, Drink Up, survival kits and all day every day were deemed acceptable, and complaints which raised significant concerns about alcohol promotions during the COVID-19 pandemic were dismissed.”

Cancer Council senior legal policy advisor, Sarah Jackson, said a watchdog controlled by advertisers whose focus is on driving sales created an ‘obvious’ conflict of interests.

“The lack of independent regulation is allowing the alcohol industry to profit from harmful alcohol advertising, including exploiting the vulnerabilities of people in our communities during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.

But the report’s conclusions were rejected by ABAC, with independent chair of the ABAC Management Committee, Harry Jenkins, branding Cancer Council’s claims as misleading and selective.

Of the thousands of alcohol advertisements since the pandemic, only 19 complaints related to the pandemic or government restrictions, he said, indicating ‘there wasn’t a widespread use of the pandemic in alcohol marketing’.

Of those complaints, 14 originated from the authors of the report ‘and their colleagues’, Jenkins said.

ABAC said 12 complaints led to ads being withdrawn for breaching standards, while seven were dismissed.

“The ABAC determinations served to educate the industry on unacceptable marketing practices surrounding this new societal issue, and COVID related complaints significantly decreased after the early stages of the pandemic demonstrating the efficacy and efficiency of the ABAC regulatory system,” Jenkins said.

“There was a noticeable correlation between COVID-themed code breaches and marketing (all of them via digital platforms) from businesses pivoting from usual sales channels to online distribution given the impact of pandemic restrictions e.g., closures of hotels/restaurants or cellar door outlets.

“These marketers tended to be smaller producers with none of the breaches originating from ABAC signatories.”

Ads which ABAC ruled did not breach standards used the [pandemic] ‘in the context of pivoting to online and contactless sales options rather than to promote excessive consumption of alcohol or suggest that alcohol was a suitable coping mechanism during the pandemic’, Jenkins said.

He also rejected accusations that ABAC did not consider the impact the lockdowns were having on local communities.

On the contrary, adverts which suggested alcohol was a ‘prop’ to deal with stress had been found to breach standards, Jenkins said.

Judgements also stressed that marketing must not promote alcohol as a way to relax and ‘deal with the stress of the pandemic’.


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