Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - November 2009
An alcohol advertising ban would favour big producers, not small ones
THE BRITISH Medical Association have recently called for drastic restrictions on the sale and promotion of alcohol, one of which is a total ban on advertising. Itís highly questionable, though, whether this would have any effect on consumption levels, as there is plenty of evidence that while advertising may affect brand choice, it doesnít change peopleís minds as to whether or not to have a drink. You donít need an advert to prompt you to go to the pub or to pick up a few bottles from the off-licence. Tobacco advertising has been banned for a number of years now, yet smoking rates have hardly fallen off a cliff.
You wouldnít be reading this if it wasnít for alcohol advertising, as thatís what pays for this newsletter. And how could you run a beer festival if you couldnít tell people that you were actually going to be selling beer? Would a pub be able to say outside that it belonged to Robinsons or Holts, or even that alcoholic drinks were available at all within? Subject to a basic requirement of honesty, surely the ability of manufacturers of products to provide consumers with information about them is a central aspect of free speech.
Some people naÔvely assume that banning advertising would help small-scale producers by preventing the big boys from mounting expensive promotions. However, in reality it is likely that the effect would be exactly the opposite, tending to prop up established players and well-known brands. If you canít advertise products, it makes it extremely difficult to introduce new ones, so a market without advertising ends up stagnating and becoming ossified.
In the absence of any other information, people inevitably would end up asking for familiar products they had had before, or which their friends were drinking. Those brands that had been well-known before the ban came in would benefit from continued recall and recognition that no new entrants would be able to challenge. There could also be a return to simply ordering generic products such bitter, white wine or whisky, which again would militate against anything new or different.
Informal promotion of alcoholic drinks would inevitably be targeted too
THERE ARE, of course, other ways of promoting alcoholic drinks apart from paid advertising. An important feature of the alcohol market, and one in which it differs markedly from tobacco, is the enormous amount of information disseminated about drinks that is not paid for directly by producers. There are societies devoted to the appreciation of beer, wine and spirits, magazines, guide books, newspaper columns and a growing number of internet listings and blogs.
Most people with a serious interest in alcoholic drinks will probably get much more information from these informal sources than from conventional advertising. Obviously, though, there is plenty of scope for behind-the-scenes manipulation by drinks producers, which would assume more significance if advertising was outlawed. But do the doctors really want a situation where the ďGood Beer GuideĒ became a banned publication and you would be committing an offence if you wrote in a newspaper article or on a blog that you had a good pint of Robinsonís in the Arden Arms? Given the immense possibilities of spreading information through the grapevine, itís hard to believe they would be happy to leave it alone.