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Alcohol: The young

Note: This advice is given by the CAP Executive about non-broadcast advertising. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not bind CAP, CAP advisory panels or the Advertising Standards Authority.

The Code prohibits alcohol ads from being directed at under-18s through the selection of media, style of presentation, content or context in which they appear. That means marketers not only have to take care not to use characters (real or fictitious) that are likely to appeal particularly to people under 18 but also should be mindful about the selection of media, style of presentation, content or context in which ads appear. Marketing communications should not appear in a medium if 25% or more of the audience is under 18; so teen magazines and the like are problematic mediums.

In January 2009, the ASA upheld a complaint against a brochure that featured a bottle of wine with the recipient’s name printed on it; the recipient was 15 years old. Although the marketer said it had not intended to market alcohol to anyone under the legal drinking age (LDA), the ASA considered a claim that “customers must be 18 years of age or over” did not negate the marketer’s obligation to avoid directly marketing to those under the LDA (Scotts Ltd, 28 January 2009). A few months earlier, the ASA upheld a complaint about a mailing that invited recipients to celebrate their forth-coming 18th birthday. Even though the mailing was not inviting the recipient to consume alcohol until she was the LDA, the ASA considered that the mailing promoted alcohol to a 17-year-old and therefore breached the Code (Tenpin Ltd, 22 October 2008).

An instructive example of an ASA judgement that the placement of an ad had not breached the Code is the ASA’s deliberations on Spider-Man 3. Because he had attended an afternoon screening of a film with a 12A certificate, the complainant considered the ad was irresponsibly placed. The ASA noted the Cinema Advertising Association’s Alcohol Film Panel had examined the audience profiles for two similar films and had determined that Spider-Man 3 was unlikely to attract an audience of more than 25% under 18 years of age. Because of that and the content and style of presentation of the ad, which it considered mature and not particularly appealing to under-18s, the ASA concluded the ad was acceptable (Brown-Forman Beverages Europe Ltd, 25 July 2007). Similarly an ad for a clothing brand showed young models at what appeared to be backstage at a gig, there were several empty alcohol containers clearly visible. Although the ASA considered that the ad was likely to appeal particularly to under 18’s, by being associated with youth culture, they also noted that the ad appeared in a trade magazine, the readership for which was over the age of 18 and therefore did not uphold the complaint. This is a good illustration of the alcohol rules applying to an ad that features alcohol even though the ad is for a different product (Americana International Ltd t/a Bench, 25 January 2012).

Websites are another medium where advertisers need to be careful of the 25% rule. In 2008, the ASA received a complaint that an internet ad was irresponsible. The ad, for a football game, appeared on a free games website and featured a screen-shot from the game showing a man about to kick a football against a wall that had an outline of a goal on it. Visitors were instructed to "click to play” and were automatically re-directed to the Carling website where the game was hosted. Although it considered that the screenshot that comprised the ad was not directed at children in its style of presentation, content or context, the ASA noted the football game required a relatively low level of skill and its content was likely to appeal to children. The ASA was concerned that the advertiser could not conclusively show that more than 75% of the audience was 18 or over (Coors Brewers Ltd, 19 November 2008). Similarly a complaint was received about an ad for Bacardi on Kiss FM asserting that the ad was inappropriately targeted. The advertiser supplied the ASA with Rajar (Radio Joint Audience Research) and Neilsen research which showed that the percentage of listeners over the age of 18 were 76% and 87.6% respectively. The complaint was not upheld o the basis that the ad was appropriately targeted (Bacardi-Martini Ltd, 8 February 2012).

Marketers should be wary of appealing to typical insecurities such as attractiveness, being “cool”, social acceptance or belonging. Although it rejected complaints about a Carling cinema ad that featured the strapline “Belong”, the ASA upheld complaints about ads that implied drinking the advertised brand could contribute to popularity, confidence and attractiveness and was likely to appeal particularly to people under 18 years of age by reflecting the cool, sassy elements of youth culture (Coors Brewers Ltd, 2 May 2007, Intercontinental Brands Ltd, 21 February 2007).

Humour is acceptable but it must not be of a type typically associated with children or teenagers. That almost certainly rules out, for example, practical jokes, slapstick comedy, sexual humour (Stiffy Shots Ltd, 21 January 2004 and Beverage Brands, 22 September 2004), outwitting authority, ignoring responsibilities, ''generation gap'' references, puerile behaviour (Beverage Brands, 9 June 2004) and anything linked to youth culture. Juvenile or adolescent behaviour is also problematic, even in an ad where the individual playing a significant role is not drinking. Killing a wasp with an aerosol and a lighter and pretending to have Tourettes to justify shouting “twat” at someone are therefore a problem (Aston Manor Brewery Company Ltd, 13 June 2012).   

Special care, too, should be taken to avoid the use of music or styles of music that are popular with children and teenagers. Similarly, marketers should avoid using personalities, sport or other themes that might appeal to the under-18s. The ASA upheld a complaint against an ad that used colloquial language, an emoticon, and referred to celebrities like Cheryl Cole, Nicole Scherzinger and Leona Lewis as these were all likely to have particular appeal to young people rather than older consumers (Maxxium UK Ltd, 12 December 2012).

Marketers should take care when using cartoon-like images; they might be acceptable if they are adult in nature but marketers run the risk of appealing to the under-18s if cartoon images are too childish in their execution (Cobra Beer Ltd, 24 September 2008). Similarly, the use of animation or animals in an alcohol ad is likely to result in a breach of the Code although the incidental use of, say, a dog being walked is likely to be acceptable. Although the Alcohol rules do not distinguish between teenagers and younger children, the Copy Advice team will use its discretion when judging whether ads appeal to under-18s.

See Alcohol: The use of cartoons, animals and characters, Alcohol: Irreverent or laddish behaviour, Alcohol: Models under 25 and Alcohol: Use of celebrities

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