I’ve written about this at length in the past, so I don’t propose to go over old ground. But it’s generally accepted that the primary function of all advertising is to encourage brand switching and to bring new products to the public’s attention. The effect on the overall level of demand for the category is minimal. This is especially true of problem drinkers, who will go for whatever they can get their hands on at an affordable price. Over time, removing alcohol brands from the general public consciousness might have a moderate effect on dampening demand, but it would be a very slow process. We can see this with tobacco where, despite a total advertising ban, above-inflation price hikes and severe restrictions on where it can be consumed, the total level of sales has only gradually declined.
The authors of the document seem particularly concerned about the impact of advertising on children, and indeed have come up with a cringe-inducing “easy-read” version of it, from which the image above it taken. Being exposed to alcohol images apparently has a pernicious effect on children, even though they must regularly see people drinking in pubs and restaurants.. But surely young people start drinking alcohol because they are introduced to it by family or peer group members, not because they see a poster for Madri or Smirnoff. It seems to be a case of recruiting children as soldiers in the war on alcohol.
The public health lobby must be well aware that they are exaggerating the impact of advertising restrictions on consumption levels. But it serves their purpose to foster a climate of moral panic to promote a long-term process of denormalisation.
Some smaller producers may have a sneaking sympathy for measures to prevent sports sponsorship and TV advertising. Surely that will hurt the big players and help the little guy. But that is embarking down a dangerous road. Advertising restrictions will always work against new products and new entrants to the market, and reinforce establish brands that people are familiar with. They serve to ossify the market in its previous form. Tobacco brand choice now relies entirely on word-of-mouth and folk memory of how things were before the ban. It would be completely impossible now for a new company to enter the market, or to introduce an entirely new cigarette brand.
Drinks retailers have reacted with alarm to the prospect of having to put alcohol products out of sight. And it should not be forgotten that whisky is Scotland’s biggest export earner, and I can’t imagine the industry being particularly pleased about being prevented from advertising their product in its home country.