Blame the breweries for binge drinking

Marketing alcohol to teenagers is cynical more than subtle.

I had presumed the companies would develop a new drink from a variety of mixes and then conduct taste tests with the target audience. Once they had the taste they would then create a brand and logo and promote it heavily. But this isn’t what happens. One of the marketing team at Independent Liquor described the process to me a couple of years back. (Independent Liquor is based in Papakura to the South of Auckland. It was founded by Michael Erceg who started the company from scratch to mix and market RTDs (ready to drinks) or alco-pops to young people. His company was sold for over a billion after his death in a helicopter crash several years back)

The brand is created first, picking up on images and themes from youth culture, with an alcohol mix then developed to go with the brand. Batches of the new drink are produced with only cheap promotions, such as overseas trips for two, to encourage sales at liquor outlets. Only after the brand sells well will it be widely advertised with giveaways and sponsorships. If it doesn’t sell it will be quietly dropped and disappear from the shelves. Each year many brands are created but only a small minority become big sellers. For Independent Liquor brands like Woodstock, Pulse and KGB are the big money-spinners and heavily promoted to young New Zealanders.

Each week we see the inevitable result in scenes of drunken, boorish behaviour by teenagers engaging in binge drinking. It’s quite impossible to see the increase in youth binge drinking as separate from the rise of deliberate, cynical exploitation of young people by advertisers working for the alcohol industry.

Most people would be surprised to know the alcohol industry has a voluntary code whereby advertisements “must not imply that liquor creates a significant change in mood, contributes to personal, social or sexual success, nor imply offensive behaviour, nor have strong appeal to minors in particular, nor advocate heroes of the young”.

Look at the Tui adds on TV or the Miss Tui 2009 internet competition. Don’t anyone try to tell me these promotions follow the code.

The breweries have reliable allies in hospitality. Bars and liquor outlets have been criticised this week for promotions through social networking sites such as Facebook along with text messages to encourage youth drinking. Auckland bar Margaritas advertises a student night every Wednesday “with real student prices, $5 jugs and $4 tequila”. Other bars send out text messages when cheap alcohol promotions are launched. A Dunedin liquor store advertises a 15% loyalty discount to those who sign up on-line. A prize includes a 65-litre pallet of alcohol.

The Hospitality Association chief executive Bruce Robertson claims there are strict protocols around how bars can advertise promotions. He says it’s illegal for a bar to run a promotion that could lead to intoxication. Yeah right!

If anything is clear it is that self-regulation and codes of conduct are not working. Expecting responsible drinking from teenagers will mean nothing while they are adrift in a sea of cynical advertising, promotion and sponsorship costing more than $70 million every year.

The rules on alcohol promotion were relaxed by National in 1992 and we saw an explosion of advertising on TV and radio. From research conducted by GALA (Group Against Liquor Advertising) over the 10-year period 1990 to 1999, 14 to 17 year olds doubled the amount they drank on a typical drinking occasion. They drank 2-3 drinks in 1990 and 5-6 in 1999.

This link between alcohol abuse and advertising is indisputable.

Politicians however like to focus on the symptoms of the problem. They complain about youth attitudes to drink and argue about the drinking age. They worry how to encourage young people to drink moderately and responsibly.

The breweries and bars are happy because these arguments leave them off the hook. One of their favourite ploys is to claim they are “working with the government” to alleviate problems around the abuse of alcohol. When pressed they will call for more research before any new regulations are introduced. Any ruse will do to muddy the public debate and throw parents and politicians off the scent. If they have their way we will still be researching when half our 14-year-olds are alcoholics. In the meantime the profits roll in and pictures of drunken teenagers continue to appear regularly in the news media.

For too long we have blamed the young for falling into traps cynically set by breweries and bars. It’s time to reign them in hard with bans on advertising, promotion and sponsorship using alcohol. It’s called giving kiwi kids a fair go.