Introduction by Croakey: Independent regulation and sanctions for breaching regulations are some recommendations for reforming Australia’s current industry-led voluntary alcohol marketing code, according to Devorah Riesenberg, from Cancer Council Western Australia.
Below, Riesenberg discusses a recent complaint to the Adjudication Panel for the Alcohol Beverage Advertising Code (ABAC) Scheme where alcohol company Carlton & United Brewing was found not at fault when one of their advertisements was aired prior to a children’s ballet video on YouTube.
She says the Federal Government must set a higher standard of alcohol marketing regulation.
Devorah Riesenberg writes:
Imagine a world where a parent can play an age-appropriate video for their child online and not have to worry about them being exposed to harmful marketing. This should be a low bar to set.
But alcohol companies continue to expose our children to harmful products. Alcohol ads are placed during shows that are watched by children, putting the profits of alcohol companies before the health of children.
In the latest example demonstrating the weakness of the industry-led voluntary marketing code, the Adjudication Panel for the Alcohol Beverage Advertising Code (ABAC) Scheme found that alcohol company Carlton & United Breweries (CUB) was not at fault when an alcohol ad for a fruity beer was placed before a children’s ballet practice exam video.
A community member brought this ad to our attention. Her six-year-old daughter was watching a YouTube video, of six to nine-year-old children completing their Royal Academy of Dance ballet exam, in nervous preparation for her Grade One ballet exam.
The community member was shocked when the ad for a fruity-flavoured beer appeared prior to the ballet exam video. It included images of brightly coloured cans with flavours such as raspberry, mango and watermelon. Her child was curious about what the ad depicted, so the parent explained that the video was advertising alcoholic drinks.
When the parent asked her daughter why she thought the ad might appear before a ballet exam video, the child was already clued into the marketing strategy behind the ad, commenting:
It’s persuading kids for when they’re grownups to drink alcohol, because kids don’t know as much as adults to not listen to the TV.”
Clearly, children should not be seeing alcohol ads before kids’ videos online, so when this was brought to our attention, we submitted a complaint to the industry regulation body. We were concerned that not only was the ad placed prior to children’s video content, but also used bright colours that may appeal to children.
However, by the time a complaint is submitted, the damage is already done: another child has already seen an alcohol ad.
Evidence shows that young people find alcohol ads appealing, and it is well established that exposure to alcohol advertising influences young people’s beliefs and attitudes about drinking, and increases the likelihood that young people will start to use alcohol and will drink more if already using alcohol.
The evidence base has developed to an extent that we know that alcohol marketing is one cause of drinking among young people.
In response to our complaint, the alcohol company agreed that “the content is for minors and that an alcohol ad should not have appeared before the video”.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, ABAC deflected responsibility for the ad placement, and instead laid fault on YouTube for not tagging the video as specifically for children.
CUB requested and received a ‘no fault breach’, which is a breach of the Code that is unforeseeable or outside the reasonable control of the marketer or their agency.
This is not the first time a child has seen an alcohol ad during video content that is created for and watched by children, and unfortunately it likely won’t be the last under the current system.
ABAC has previously seen multiple complaints (for example, see here, here and here) where an alcohol ad was placed prior to or during children’s content, or a family show. These complaints have usually been dismissed, as the show is also viewed by adults, or the complaint receives a ‘no fault breach’.
ABAC received eight complaints for alcohol ads being played during Lego Masters, where teams of two build Lego projects for a cash prize, a family show that has a PG rating. Lego Masters applications encourage those over the age of 15 years to apply.
In dismissing the complaints, the ABAC Panel determined that “Lego is commonly marketed as a children’s product, the program Lego Masters is focused on adult Lego enthusiasts…[and the program] has a family focus which certainly captures minors but is not primarily aimed at them”.
Higher standards needed
Once again, ABAC had failed to protect children in our community and allowed alcohol companies to risk their health by promoting harmful products where they would be exposed.
ABAC continues to demonstrate its weakness. Alcohol companies are largely left to write and administer their own rules, and the industry-led system lacks monitoring or sanctions, and continues to put our children and young people at risk.
The current systems lack accountability. When alcohol companies can market alcohol to children, and even acknowledge that this should not have happened, and yet nothing is done to ensure it does not happen again, we can all agree the system is seriously flawed.
Our children, young people, and families deserve better. We need the Federal Government to set a higher standard of alcohol marketing regulation.
It is time for an independent regulation system that provides clear objectives, monitoring to ensure effectiveness, and has sanctions when the regulations are breached.
Devorah Riesenberg is an Alcohol Policy and Research Coordinator at Cancer Council Western Australia and an Accredited Practicing Dietitian. Her work focuses on raising awareness of the harms from alcohol and advocating for higher standards for regulating alcohol marketing.
** Note, the headline was changed after publication.
See Croakey’s archive of articles on the commercial determinants of health.