Out-Law Analysis 2 min. read

Proposed Scotland alcohol advertising ban threatens drinks industry jobs

The Scottish government’s proposed ban on alcohol advertising threatens jobs in the drinks industry and fails to recognise that businesses will look to find ways to work around the new rules.

Ministers claim that that alcohol advertising increases the attractiveness of consumption among children and young people, arguing that a comprehensive ban is required because restricting individual channels has a limited impact. In a consultation launched in November last year, the Scottish government proposed a ban on alcohol advertising on television, outdoor billboards, and through sports and event sponsorship.

Aside from the fact that such a ban would throttle a vital source of funding for Scotland’s arts and culture sectors, removing the ability of marketers to reach their audience in the traditional methods will simply encourage them to find ways to work around the new rules. This is evident in other European countries, where bans have struggled to find effect because many brands are recognisable without the use of their name in advertising.

Colours, bottle shapes, straplines and associated characters have all been developed by companies to create their ‘brand story’, and it is almost impossible to successfully eradicate those associated elements from the public mind. Brand sharing and “alibi marketing” - where a brand name or logo is removed and replaced with associated elements - have all developed in response to advertisement restriction.

On top of this, in recent years, businesses have increasingly looked to social media to drive their brand development. A ban on traditional forms of advertising like TV and billboards could also represent a death knell for that industry, further driving traffic to social media and reinforcing it as the go-to for advertising alcohol in the UK.   

Whether the Scottish government could introduce a comprehensive and effective ban on digital marketing on social media is questionable. A complete ban would require complex and unreliable geo-blocking software to prevent alcohol advertisements and promotional content from being displayed to a Scotland-based audience. At the same time, a piecemeal ban would not reduce the exposure of children and vulnerable people to what are perceived as harmful brands.

Rules and guidance already exist to control the way in which advertisers can present alcoholic products, and the option already exists to opt out of receiving alcohol marketing on social media. Platforms like TikTok already enforce complete bans on advertisements promoting alcohol, so it remains questionable whether the Scottish government’s blanket ban is the most effective way to deal with societal problems.

Under the Scottish government’s proposals, breweries and distilleries could also be barred from selling branded merchandise and branding on outdoor umbrellas and glasses could be restricted. But the move would likely have a significant negative impact on the Scottish government’s own target to double the food and drink sector’s turnover by 2030.

It is still not clear why fresh regulations are even needed.

After all, the 2005 Licensing (Scotland) Act already regulates the pricing and promotion of alcohol as well as associated branded products, and how alcoholic drinks can be displayed alongside non-alcoholic ones in licensed premises. Proper enforcement of these existing regulations should be more than sufficient to protect children and young people and vulnerable people.

The Scottish government has also proposed a ban on the branding of non- or low-alcohol products associated with alcohol brands, as well as other “brand sharing” merchandise like clothing. There is, however, no clear evidence that shows that such a drastic move would actually result in tangible health and social improvements.

In fact, in an open letter to the First Minister, more than 100 businesses, including industry big hitters like BrewDog, Diageo, Whyte & Mackay and Tennent’s, wrote that the ban would have the opposite effect. They warned that the proposals "could not have come at a worse time” for the country’s alcohol sector, and “the many thousands” it employs.

Indeed, young people have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 – an issue that continues to cause untold harm. Scotland’s hospitality, tourism and events industries employ huge numbers of young people, and ministers have failed to consider the serious consequences that their proposals could have on the employment market in these sectors.

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