Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Out of sight, out of mind

Before too long, it is likely that retailers in the UK will be required to keep all tobacco products out of public view. Now, as a non-smoker, this does not concern me directly (although it certainly does indirectly), but it raises the question of exactly how people are supposed to establish what brands are on offer, and at what prices? Presumably they’ll be allowed to display a price list in a prescribed format, otherwise customers will be placed in a ridiculous position of trying to find out what’s available by a process of elimination.

It’s an interesting thought experiment to speculate on what effect this would have if applied to alcoholic drinks in pubs and off-licences. Gone would be the days of looking along a row of pumpclips or bottles on a shelf to see if there’s anything different you fancy. You would have to peruse a dry price list and then ask for something by name. The barperson would not even be able to answer the question “have you got anything interesting on today?” Inevitably, people would tend to ask for something they had bought there before or, if in an unfamiliar pub, something they’d heard of elsewhere, so the familiar would win out over the new.

And the role of promotion couldn’t be taken on by private citizens either. I’d probably be breaking the law now if I started going on here what a good smoke Benson & Hedges were, and how they were available for £5.79 for 20 at Faroukh’s Newsagents, even if it was purely a personal opinion and I received no payment for it, so I wouldn’t be able to sing the praises of Taylor’s Landlord either or tell people they could get it at the Jolly Plover. Which would also make the activities of CAMRA well-nigh impossible and the Good Beer Guide a banned volume.

Now, I'm not saying this is going to happen in the next ten years, or indeed ever. But it is by no means axiomatic, as many in the beer world seem to think, that restrictions on the advertising and promotion of alcoholic drinks, even those falling well short of a total ban, would favour small producers over big ones. Indeed I would say overall they would tend to prop up established players and well-known brands. If you can’t advertise products, effectively you can’t introduce new ones, so a market without advertising ends up being ossified.

4 comments:

  1. This is exactly what has happened in the US with the Federal ruling on tobacco, in partnership with the TFK association and (incredibly!) Philip Morris. PM are quite happy to go along with all the anti-smokers as it sets in stone their share of the market by all but totally eliminating new entrants.

    By the way, on the subject of hiding things. The second reading for that law is going on this week and makes hilarious reading on Hansard. You have Gillian Merron of Lincoln talking about how eligible customers are able to request to see packets, but that something has to be done about not letting them do so if a kid is walking past at the time. Maybe walled off areas to duck behind, she suggests, but then that would be expensive for smaller stores etc etc etc ...

    You seriously couldn't make this nonsense up (and I hate that cliche usually). So much wrapping up in knots about a completely irrelevant and useless law which won't have any effect whatsoever.

    Tory Mike Penning is having the time of his life winding them all up about it. Better than Tom goading Margot in the Good Life, it is. :-)

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  2. Some real ale drinkers support a ban on alcohol advertising (other than at the point of sale) because they think it will level the playing field for small brewers; the suggestion that it might set existing market shares in stone should ring some alarm bells, and is not something I had considered.

    Real ale drinkers often fail to understand that a lot of people like drinking the same drink every time they go to the pub, whether that is lager, smoothflow or G&T. They want to know what to expect. Consequently, the notion that a Fosters drinker will, in the absence of adverts, go to the pub and decide "I think I'll give that real ale a go" is wishful thinking.

    Those of us who remember the 70s will also recall that having the same beer was a common experience for real ale drinkers at a time when even one guest beer was highly unusual, and your choice was confined to the brewer's own beers, often in nearly every pub in a town. Multi-choice is a comparatively recent phenomenon for cask beer; we can’t be surprised that many drinkers still like to stick to what they know.

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  3. RedNev, thanks for a thoughtful comment.

    You and I know how much real ale publicity is done free of charge by amateurs through CAMRA newsletters and Internet e-mail groups, forums and blogs.

    I suspect pretty much all of that would be illegal under a ban on anything but point-of-sale advertising.

    Also, while I spread my favours around various pubs and brewers, I like to know what I'm likely to get in any particular pub beyond the usual multi-handpump emporiums. If I go in a Robinson's pub, I know I'll get Unicorn at least. If I go in a pub company outlet with a varying guest beer policy, I may end up with a choice of two strong, malty ales neither of which I fancy if in the mood for a good, hoppy pint of "ordinary".

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  4. Perhaps where we are now is the best we can realistically hope for, but I do hope that's not true.

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