Monday, April 22, 2019

Introducing the "Responsible Alcohol Marketing Scheme"

If you look up "ABAC" on Wikipedia you will currently find five choices of meaning, but none of these refers to the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code. This is a voluntary code of conduct for the alcohol industry in Australia (also known as Australia’s Responsible Alcohol Marketing Scheme). I though that the ideas behind this scheme might be of interest to some of the readers of this blog.

There are, of course, various codes of conduct for the alcohol industry, notably the Code of Responsible Practices for Beverage Alcohol Advertising and Marketing, provided by the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. However, the sort of self-regulatory initiative that I am discussing in this blog post is precisely the sort of thing that it much easier to organize in a relatively small country like Australia, since it is much easier to make implementation national.

The intention of ABAC is not just to provide the alcohol industry with some idea of "best practises" for advertising and packaging, rather than some sort of free-for-all. Instead, the main intention is to provide a quasi-regulatory system for alcohol advertising and packaging, which is separate from any other codes that might apply to advertising in general. Whether such a Code can work in practice is something that is yet to be determined; and I discuss this below.

The ABAC Scheme was introduced in 1998, and can be thought of as the centre-piece of Australia's self-regulatory system for alcohol advertising and packaging. The Code is designed to ensure that alcohol advertising will be "conducted in a manner which neither conflicts with nor detracts from the need for responsibility and moderation in liquor merchandising and consumption, and which does not encourage consumption by underage persons."

The guidelines have been negotiated with the national government, but consumer complaints are handled independently. ABAC is administered by a Management Committee that includes industry, advertising and government representatives, currently with representatives from the Brewers Association of Australia, the Spirits & Cocktails Australia, Australian Grape & Wine, and The Communications Council. All costs are borne by the alcohol industry.

There are actually only two main practical things that the ABAC Committee oversees:
  1. provide a pre-vetting assessment of intended advertisements
  2. adjudicate public complaints about existing advertisements.
In its quarterly and annual reports, ABAC has always laid stress on the usefulness of their voluntary Alcohol Advertising Pre-Vetting Service, as a means to avoid potential problems for the advertisers (e.g. ABAC highlights the benefit of pre-vetting adverts; ABAC report highlights importance of pre-vetting). In effect, any ad that passes the pre-vetting process should not generate any complaints that would be upheld by the adjudication process. In 2018, ABAC received 1,751 pre-vetting requests (see ABAC Scheme releases 2018 Annual Report).

Complaints about an advertisement or packaging are dealt with by an Adjudication Panel:
During 2018 the rules were tested by complaints, including by public health groups, resulting in the highest number of determinations (61) and the highest number of Code breaches (21 complaints upheld) in the 20+ year history of ABAC.
The most complained-about marketing campaign in 2018 was for Rusty Yak Ginger Ale, with 13 complaints made, but these were outside ABAC’s jurisdiction, as the concerns were unrelated to alcohol as a product, but were concerned with discrimination against a sector of the community [people with red hair!].
It seems a bit odd that "discrimination against a sector of the community" is not within ABAC's remit.

Comments and criticisms

From 1998-2003 ABAC was fully administered by the alcohol industry itself, via the Australian Associated Brewers, the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia, the Liquor Merchants’ Association of Australia, and the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia. However, a formal review by a National Committee for the Review of Alcohol Advertising, on behalf of the Ministerial Council for Drug Strategy, concluded that the system was seriously deficient and had failed to ensure alcohol advertising complied with the ABAC (see A decade of failure: self-regulation of alcohol advertising in Australia). This review had followed a prior critical report from academia (The decline of ethics or the failure of self-regulation? The case of alcohol advertising). The ABAC system was then modified to its current management form.

I haven't seen much in the way of complaints about ABAC from within the alcohol industry. Indeed, they seem to be of the opinion that it is working perfectly. However, there have been a few academic research papers that question the success of the current scheme.

There is a very interesting literature review, from 2013, comparing the regulation of alcohol advertising in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom (Regulation of alcohol advertising: Policy options for Australia). It concludes that there is "considerable evidence that alcohol advertising influences drinking behaviours, and that current regulatory systems based on co-regulation and voluntary regulation (as is the case in Australia) are ineffective."

Academic criticism of the ineffectiveness of ABAC has continued over the past decade. For example, Donovan et al. (Magazine alcohol advertising compliance with the Australian Alcoholic Beverages Advertising Code) found that:
52% of items appeared to contravene at least one section of the ABAC. The two major apparent breaches related to section B — the items having a strong appeal to adolescents (34%) and to section C — promoting positive social, sexual and psychological expectancies of consumption (28%).
Similarly, Pierce et al. (Regulation of alcohol marketing in Australia: a critical review of the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code Scheme’s new Placement Rules) concluded that:
[the rules for placement of advertising] are inadequately defined and narrow in scope, resulting in the dismissal of almost all relevant complaints. Weaknesses identified in the regulatory processes include limited representation from external stakeholders in the development of the Placement Rules, a lack of transparency and independence in the Scheme’s administration, and limited monitoring and enforcement options.

One specific example of the critical comments about ABAC refers to sports advertising (Don’t worry about the kids: Let’s just protect the alcohol industry). It is worth quoting at some length:
The broadcast of alcohol advertisements on commercial television in Australia is restricted in order to limit the exposure of young people to alcohol advertising. Alcohol advertising is only permitted during periods of M (mature classification), MA (mature audience classification) or AV (adult violence classification) programs (which are restricted to between 8:30pm and 5.00am).
The one – completely counter-intuitive – exception to this is that the broadcast of alcohol advertisements is permitted during the live broadcast of sporting events on weekends and public holidays. It is not surprising that this "exception" results in alcohol advertising being shown at the time that children and teenagers are most likely to see it and most likely to be influenced by it.
In relation to sport, the current iteration of the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) states that a Marketing Communication must NOT show (visibly, audibly or by direct implication) the consumption or presence of an Alcohol Beverage as a cause of or contributing to the achievement of personal, business, social, sporting, sexual or other success.
The previous version of the Code also used to say that alcohol advertisements must NOT “depict any direct association between the consumption of alcohol beverages, other than low alcohol beverages, and the operation of a motor vehicle, boat or aircraft or the engagement in any sport (including swimming and water sports) or potentially hazardous activity” but now it says “before or during any activity that, for safety reasons, requires a high degree of alertness or physical co-ordination, such as the control of a motor vehicle, boat or machinery or swimming”.
Somehow, in its efforts to toughen up the Code and better protect kids from inappropriate messages about alcohol, the ABAC managed to drop the specific reference to sport. Does that make you wonder whose well-being they are protecting?
Needless to say, the sports industry is full supportive of the alcohol industry in this case (Sport codes lay into proposed alcohol advertising laws, say it will hurt industry). As one example of this, see Calabria Family Wines becomes official wine partner of the Collingwood Football Club, where:
Calabria Family Wines branding will reach the more than one million people who attend Collingwood matches each season and be exposed to the club’s enormous social media, free-to-air and pay-TV audiences.

ABAC is unusual worldwide, as an example of voluntary sel-regulation. The idea of self-regulation is a good one, if it can be put into practice effectively. However, there is obviously some way to go before the alcohol industry in Australia advertises all of its products in a socially acceptable manner.