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A decade of failure - Self-regulation of alcohol advertising in Australia

1993 one of Australia’s foremost public health researchers concluded that unless the alcohol industry could demonstrate control over alcohol advertising the public could rightly demand that it be regulated by government (Hawks, 1993). A decade on, the latest system of self-regulation, administered from 1998 until 2003 by the alcohol industry, was found by government to have failed to operate effectively, despite the industry’s constant reassurance that the system could not be bettered.

Alcohol advertising in Australia is subject to two codes of practice. One is the Advertiser Code of Ethics which applies to all advertising and addresses matters of ‘taste and decency,’ primarily language, discrimination and vilification, violence, and sex. More specifically, alcohol advertising is subject to the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) which is controlled and administered by the drinks industry.

In summary, ABAC requires alcohol advertisers to “present a mature, balanced and responsible approach to drinking”. Accordingly, advertising “must not have strong or evident appeal to children or adolescents,” nor depict “the consumption or presence of alcohol as contributing to personal, business, social, sporting, sexual or other success”; nor suggest alcohol contributes to a change in mood or environment (ABAC, undated).

Four industry associations operate ABAC in the interest of “voluntary self-regulation”: the Australian Associated Brewers (AAB), the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia (DSICA), the Liquor Merchants’ Association of Australia and the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia. Two key components of ABAC are the Pre-vetting panel, which previews advertisements in the developmental stage to ensure “they abide by the letter, and the spirit, of the Code”, and the Complaints Panel that adjudicates on objections to advertisements (DSICA 2002).

In the period under review the Advertising Standards Board (ASB) acted as the gatekeeper on advertising complaints: if they concerned the “taste and decency” code the ASB would adjudicate the complaint; if they concerned alcohol advertisements it would refer the complaint to the ABAC complaints panel.

The ABAC system functioned unimpeded for five years (NCRAA, 2003). Throughout the period the liquor industry insisted ABAC was working perfectly and no improvement was possible: “…Australia has a comprehensive self regulatory system in place that specifically prevents advertising directed at young people” (DSICA, 2002). It was also a global benchmark: “the industry’s voluntary code and its complaints system was one of the world’s most stringent” (Milburn, 2002) and the AAB said: “Australian brewers lead the world in strong self regulation of advertising” (Hudson, 2003). Individual companies proclaimed their commitment to the code: Carlton & United Breweries was “on the front foot [in terms of endorsing responsible drinking]” (Ligerakis, 2003) and Diageo asserted that code breaches were made by ‘small operators’ that were not representative of the industry (Howarth, 2004).

Despite these glowing self-assessments the ABAC was tightened in 2003 on the recommendation of the Ministerial Council for Drug Strategy, following a formal review that demonstrated the system had failed (NCRAA, 2005). The four posters are examples of advertisements which contributed to that conclusion.

Diageo’s campaign for Archer’s Schnapps featured a slogan that employed archetypal children’s language, ‘Come out to play’, and used other techniques that seemed designed to attract the attention of minors. One version had the slogan written on the palm of a hand (fig 1) and another iteration had it forming a text message on a mobile phone (fig 2). As children are likely to write messages on their hands, and adolescents are adept at ‘texting’, the images were likely to resonate or young people. Their placement on public transport shelters, where minors congregate, offered intensive and extensive exposure to people who are too young to purchase the product. At a landmark Alcohol Summit convened by the New South Wales government in August 2003, the ‘SMS’ version was highlighted as exemplifying the licence taken by the industry (Gotting, 2003).

An advertisement for Beck’s Beer (fig 3) featured a scantily dressed woman lifting her top to reveal her bikini-style underwear. As with the previous advertisement, this was posted on public transport shelters in capital cities. It appeared to infringe the section of the code that prohibits an association between alcohol and sexual success. It could even be interpreted as depicting a female drinker offering sex. The Prevetting panel thought the advertisement consistent with the code because ABAC does not prohibit sexual imagery, and: “…this ad is a line drawing only, and does not depict a real woman.” The panel also thought it did not show or imply sexual success because only one person was present (Rubensohn, 2003). The ASB considered “…the majority of people would not be offended.” Despite those judgments this image was the subject of much attention in the official review of ABAC (NCRAA, 2003).

Carlton United Breweries responded to this climate by portraying a couple engaged in a sexual act in a lavatory cubicle (fig 4). This advertisement has added significance because CUB said it delayed the Empire Lager campaign until it heard the verdict on advertising at the Alcohol Summit (Ligerakis, 2003). Advertising came under sustained attack at the summit and national and state politicians threatened tighter regulation unless it improved (Ryan, 2003). On the basis of having released this advertisement after the summit it is impossible to think CUB treated the issue, the summit, or the code seriously. When challenged CUB asserted that the couple was not having sex but was acting “frivolously” (O’Neill, 2004). It is a significant admission, first because CUB could not afford to accurately describe the action, and second, it conceded that the image violated the injunction that advertising must portray “mature and responsible behaviour.”

By mid-2002 the discrepancy between the claims made by the alcohol industry for the integrity of its advertising and the numerous violations of the code was too obvious to be ignored. The Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy (MCDS), which is responsible for Australia’s drug strategy, instigated a formal review by an ad hoc body, the National Committee for the Review of Alcohol Advertising (NCRAA).

That decision amounted to a vote of no confidence in the stewardship of advertising by the liquor industry that maintained its system of self-regulation was “world’s best practice.” It is evidence that the industry was out of touch with community standards and had lost the confidence of public health officials and some key politicians.

NCRAA’s report confirmed the system was seriously deficient and had failed to ensure alcohol advertising complied with the ABAC. It found the public was largely unaware of the code and how to register a complaint; the process for judging complaints was too slow; decision-making processes were unclear, outcomes were not well reported, and the code did not include Internet advertising (NCRAA, 2003). It also discovered that the Complaints Panel had considered only 5% of complaints registered since 1998. Unless a complainant had referred explicitly to the ABAC code the ASB had adjudicated the complaint itself, according to the generalist advertising code, without referring it to ABAC (NCRAA, 2003). This meant the ABAC complaints process had not functioned, although the industry thought the system was working at the optimal level.

When complaints were adjudicated, they were dismissed. The ASB rejected every one of the 361 complaints it considered, and of the 20 investigated by the ABAC Complaints Panel just five were upheld (NCRAA, 2003).

As a result of the NCRAA report, MCDS made numerous recommendations regarding ABAC. The industry must report annually to MCDS on all complaints. Each complaint must be referred to the ABAC Complaints Panel and should be resolved within thirty days. A government official was added to the ABAC management committee and a public health expert joined the Complaints Panel; the code was extended to include Internet advertising and a protocol was to be developed for sponsorship of youth events. MCDS gave the industry six months to implement the changes and the amended ABAC system began on 1 April 2004 (NCRAA, 2005).

It is ten years since David Hawks suggested time was running out for the drinks industry in Australia to prove itself capable of self-regulation. An experiment of a further decade’s duration should be conclusive. During the ‘first’ ABAC regime industry bodies proclaimed the system was ideal, refused to countenance any improvement and maintained its implementation was faultless. But an inquiry found the system was ineffectual, and some components inoperative, with the result that advertisers flouted the rules and complaints were routinely rejected. The ABAC case showed the self-regulators were, at best, unable to distinguish between a viable system and one in extremis. That the industry retained the privilege of self-regulation is a measure of its political power and government’s reluctance to intervene in an era of deregulation. The minor changes to the code forced by MCDS in 2003 give some hope that the industry can be held to account due to continuing scrutiny.


ABAC, The ABAC Scheme (undated)
Gotting, P. (2003) Summit leaves adland breathing easy, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 September.
Hawks, D. (1993) Taking the alcohol industry seriously’, Drug & Alcohol Review, 12, 131-132.
Howarth, B. (2004) Advertisers test the limits”, Business Review Weekly (Magazine) 5 February, p62.
Hudson, S. (2003) ‘Brewers’ Of Substance 1, 1, p.6. Distilled Spirits Industry Council of
Australia (2002) “Alcohol advertising under attack, les/sep02.html
Ligerakis, M. (2003) Cold shot fired across Carlton & United’s bow, B&T Weekly, September 5, p7.
Milburn C (2002) Fines for reckless drink ads, The Age, 4 September, p.8.
National Committee for the Review of Alcohol Advertising. (2003) Review of the Self-Regulatory System for Alcohol Advertising, State Government of Victoria, Department of Human Services, Melbourne.
National Committee for the Reviewof Alcohol Advertising. (2005) Discussion Paper 2005, State
Government of Victoria, Department of Human Services, Melbourne.
O’Neill P. (2004). Sex ‘used to sell alcohol to young’, Herald-Sun, 13 February, p.15.
Rubensohn, V. (2003) Personal communication, 16 August 2003
Ryan, R (2003) Industry bulldozed on booze ads, B&T Weekly, August 29, p.1.