Whilst average alcohol consumption in Ireland has reduced 25% since the height of Celtic Tiger, 14% of Irish adults binge-drink which is three pints or more in a single occasion.
With Ireland recently topping a table of 25 countries for ‘pre-drinking’ (drinking at home before going on a night out) only an obdurate bigot would be bloody-minded enough to insist that nothing need be done about the situation.
But like many states waking up belatedly to societal problems that hide in plain sight, the cobbled-together mélange of proposed measures to rebalance the damage done is often disproportionate and clumsy in both design and implementation, treating consumers as morons.
It’s also predicated on what the marketing world likes to call “woolly metrics”.
While its primary (if misguided) aim was to protect the public health from the effects of alcohol abuse, you might think that the years of delay to Ireland’s proposed Public Health (Alcohol) Bill before it finally got a reading in the Dáil might have led to a more meaningful Impact Analysis, one which would address the downstream effects on the economy which this Bill would have on other connected industries ranging from the alcohol industry (obviously) to packaging, design, media and advertising.
But you’d be wrong.
For those who haven’t followed its tortuous journey, the Bill focuses on four areas: regulating advertising and promotions, segregating alcohol from other products in retail outlets, introducing cancer and other health warnings on labels and Minimum Unit Pricing.
Proposals and effects
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which of the measures is the most controversial and any analysis of the four must be mindful of the massed vested interests lined up to scupper – or at least alter – and weaken the legislation first proposed by former GP now Taioseach Leo Varadkar when he was Health Minister.
Easy to forget too that proposed changes to alcohol legislation have been suggested pretty much since the turn of the century – all under the guise of being modernised in line with public expectation or demand.
Some think the minimum pricing proposal is a tax on the poor and a punishment for the majority of responsible drinkers.
The restrictions on advertising content and an advertising ban before 9pm is seen as another blow to an already-struggling media’s ad revenues.
Segregating products in retail outlets represents further pressure on retailers’ horribly-squeezed margins and an insult to the intelligence of the average shopper.
And what about disproportionate cancer warnings that both enable health scaremongering and deprive designers and other practitioners in Ireland’s creative industries of their livelihoods?
One doesn’t have to work in any of the above industries, nor be an active member of the pressure groups ranged against the proposed legislation to see that each of these scenarios is not only possible, but more likely, probable.
And to what end? Will the measures really work or will they drive younger, poorer drinkers in particular into the arms of the black market and increase the likelihood of middle-class drinkers making buying trips abroad, particularly to Britain?
These are very real and present dangers – evident in states where the introduction of similarly draconian crackdowns on the sale of tobacco products, for example, has led to a rush to the black market becoming an ordinary occurrence for consumers who’d otherwise not dream of breaking the law.
In Australia, the first country to introduce plain packaging on tobacco products in late 2012, the overall illegal market is at its highest level on record at 15%. Add to this the fact that the long-term declining smoking rate has recently stalled – according to the government’s own data – and policy-makers have been left scratching their heads.
In spite of this apparent failure, France and the UK have since followed Australia’s lead, with branded packs of cigarettes outlawed in Ireland from September.
With no clear evidence of an impact on sales and illegal tobacco a growing problem (Ireland’s first-ever illegal cigarette factory was discovered in County Louth earlier this year) it’s natural to question whether the removal of branding has any benefit at all.
And when the new laws on alcohol are flouted, when the Irish go abroad on cheaper booze-cruises or find internet-based solutions to obtaining their favourite alcohol brands on the cheap, what next? If a government can go this far in the erosion of basic consumer rights or business liberties, what else might it be prepared to do?
Imagine the Guinness brand without the harp on the glass, bottle or can, or Jameson whiskey without the yacht and the shield or Baileys without its bucolic landscape. And not just Irish brands, but imports: Johnnie Walker without its striding man or Smirnoff without its eagles You can’t, can you?
But this is the reality of what a ban similar to that on tobacco advertising and packaging in the UK might lead to.
That’s what the tobacco industry once thought… And yet so little is heard from those same creative communities that have been hit by the tobacco packaging and advertising bans. The threat to livelihoods is clear: the Irish advertising market is now worth some €1.1bn per year and sponsorship totals €173 million. Roughly €50 million a year is spent on the direct advertising of alcohol in Ireland. To be fair nothing in the current Bill suggests that there should be a complete ban but its provisions are just the beginning of a familiar slippery slope to those versed in what happened to tobacco advertising and who’re also watching closely for the potential impact on future food and confectionary marketing.
The current proposals see drinks company marketers able “to continue to advertise their brands, including an image of the product, an image or reference to its place of origin, its method of production, its price, its brand marque, its name, its logo, a description of its flavour and so on….” – which actually means the death of Guinness’s iconic annual advertising campaigns to name but one. As for the idea that alcohol advertising cannot be associated with performance, success (particularly sexual success), social inclusion and other forms of advantage – I’m not particularly sure that those famous surfing horses – often cited as among the best advertising of all time – suggested any of the above.
And that’s what creative talent does. It gets around any draconian and prohibitive legislation to find a way, in part because they tap into how consumers choose to define themselves.
Switch focus to education
The real challenge to governments, not just in Ireland but all over the developed world, is to enforce the existing legislation that almost certainly exists in each market and switch the focus to primary prevention – ie education.
For Ireland, read many – particularly Western – markets. Binge-drinking, largely – but not exclusively – the preserve of the young, is a cancer in many societies that reflects the much wider issues of relative poverty, boredom, nihilism and rebellion than it does the skills of the marketing community in persuading us to drink so much.
It will not – cannot – be excised by draconian bans. History is clear on that – from prohibition onwards.
Disproportionality of response
Should there be controls in the vicinity of children, both physical and temporal? Of course.
Should there be a theme of responsibility running through packaging and design messages? Again, it’s crass to argue otherwise but, surely, disproportionality of response matters and law-makers should be cognisant of the unintended consequences of their actions?
The pro-legislation lobby would say that those with ‘vested interests’ should not be let anywhere near the law-making process. But, what defines ‘vested interest’?
It’s right and proper to point out the risks to the economy and livelihoods – if not to the woollier principles of commercial freedom.
Again, if we could all be sure that the proposed legislation would have the desired effect, then perhaps the bemused resentment that it has stirred up would be lessened. But the evidence of other bans does not suggest that the effects would affect the intended targets.
They say “tough cases make bad laws”. In this case, bad – or at least, ill thought-through – legislation looks set to create a plethora of tough cases, with next to little guarantee of the intended successes.
The marketing world really needs to sit up and pay attention to what has happened in the Dáil, for first they came for the tobacco industry, then they came for alcohol.
When they come for your industry, what will you do?
By then, it may be too late.