Understanding the ethical issues in liquor advertising
Advertising alcoholic drinks is legal…but is it ethical?
Alcohol is a legal substance, enjoyed by millions without harm to themselves or others. On the other hand, alcohol is a drug which is abused, resulting in ruined lives, violence, and sometimes death – to the user or someone else. How do alcohol beverage producers navigate a vastly divergent customer base to safely and responsibly advertise their products to their target markets? The law permits the promotion of alcoholic drinks, unlike tobacco products, whose advertising or promotion is prohibited through any direct or indirect means by the Tobacco Products Control Act 1993. While both products can be addictive and have potential health risks, there are some key differences that contribute to the disparate regulatory approaches. Let’s look at the ethics of liquor advertising.
The impact of alcohol vs. tobacco on public health
One significant factor is the stark contrast in the health effects associated with the use of these products. Tobacco use is a leading cause of preventable diseases, including various cancers, respiratory diseases, and cardiovascular conditions. The detrimental health impact of tobacco is widely acknowledged, and governments around the world have sought to control or eliminate tobacco promotion.
The issues around alcohol consumption are more nuanced, and arguably more complex. Excessive alcohol consumption is linked to a range of health and social problems, including liver diseases, accidents, addiction and, of particular concern here in South Africa, gender-based violence (GBV). However, enjoyed in moderation, alcohol is part of our national landscape. Alcohol has deep-rooted social and cultural significance, and its consumption is often considered a norm in various social settings. Consider the champagne toast to the bride and groom at a wedding, or the enjoyment of a few beers around a braai or while watching the Springboks. In the vast majority of cases, alcohol is associated with socialising, celebrations, and cultural rituals and, other than the occasional hangover, does not cause undue harm to its users. Tobacco, by contrast, is seen as a health hazard with no redeeming qualities.
Law and voluntary measures regulating alcohol advertising
The acceptable face of liquor explains why its advertising and promotion is not prohibited. However, the dual nature of alcohol, with its perceived inoffensiveness in moderation but significant risks in excess, complicates the regulatory approach. Legislation seeks to moderate the nature and placement of promotion of alcoholic drinks. However, the Liquor Act No. 59 of 2003, 2004, which contains South Africa’s alcohol advertising standards, has only limited provision, predominantly prohibiting advertising that targets minors and false or misleading advertising.
Instead, the industry has its own Code of Commercial Communications. The Association for Alcohol Responsibility and Education (Aware.org), whose members include leading alcoholic beverage manufacturers, the wine producers’ association VINPRO, and many others, produced the Code, and all members are bound by it. They have committed to “maintain high standards of responsibility and ethical conduct in all their commercial communication activities.” Aware.org believes it has an important role to play in “implementing sustainable solutions to the potential harm caused by the misuse and abuse of alcohol” in South Africa.
The Code includes guidelines for responsible messaging (e.g., “Drink responsibly. Don’t drink and drive.”) and for alcohol-free variants of alcohol brands, as well as requirements regarding the display and voiceover of the underage statement in television adverts. There are rules about depiction of alcohol consumption in the context of sport and digital marketing requirements. Sanctions for contravening the Code are included.
Specific considerations in the South African context
In 2010, South African Breweries (SAB) was taken to task by Sonke Gender Justice Network and other organisations working in the field of gender-based violence and reproductive health. They lodged a complaint about an advertising campaign for Carling Black Label that promoted the 750 ml bottle size, with the headline, “Groot man of laaitie? Vra vir die volle 750ml” (which translates roughly to: “Big man or little child? Ask for the full 750 ml”). The complaint stated that the ad linked excessive drinking with masculinity and suggested that moderate drinkers were “weak” and “like children”. The implication was that “real men” drink large quantities of alcohol. Furthermore, billboards with the ad were placed in proximity to spaces associated with alcohol consumption, often in communities with high rates of violence against women, correlated with abuse of alcohol.
The words of the complaint are worth including in full: “Alcohol consumption is a risk factor for many health and safety problems in South Africa including sexual and domestic violence, homicide, assault, road traffic accidents and injury, HIV and AIDS and alcohol-related chronic illnesses, including cardiovascular diseases. Given the clear relationship and these health and safety issues it is unacceptable that SAB should choose to run an ad that encourages heavy drinking by linking alcohol consumption to negative stereotypes of masculinity and manhood.” SAB voluntarily pulled the advert before the Advertising Standards Authority had time to take action.
The advertisement raised a number of ethical considerations which SAB and all producers of alcoholic drinks need to be mindful of. In all societies there is a responsibility not to encourage excess consumption of a substance that can be harmful if abused. But here in South Africa we have a unique set of ethical imperatives around promotion of alcohol. It could be said that the offending Carling Black Label ad did us a favour by calling attention to them, and the industry has certainly become much more sensitive to its own duty of care, as seen in its Code of Communications discussed above. Let’s look more closely at the ethical considerations.
Gender sensitivity and GBV
Multiple studies have shown that over 65% of domestic violence is alcohol-related. A study conducted in communities in the Western Cape and KZN showed that 76% of all respondents said “the abuse of alcohol causes violence in this community”. Advertisements should avoid reinforcing stereotypes or promoting behaviour that contributes to gender inequality or violence. But advertisers have a duty to do more than this; they should depict responsible and respectful behaviour in relationships.
South Africa is home to diverse cultures, some of whom do not consume alcohol. Advertisements should be sensitive to the cultural values and traditions of different communities to avoid inadvertently offending any groups.
Drinking and driving
South Africa has one of the highest rates of road traffic accidents (RTAs) in the world, and our RTA rate is closely associated with alcohol consumption. We have robust laws about drinking and driving; their enforcement is, unfortunately, less effective. With the advent of lift-hailing services such as Uber, drinking and driving is starting to become less widespread, at least among certain groups. But we have a long way to go to reach the stage where it is considered socially unacceptable, as it is in many European countries. Therefore, the industry has a moral obligation to actively promote responsible drinking, emphasising moderation, discouraging binge drinking, and highlighting the risks of drunk driving.
Alcohol consumption is linked to violence and homicide. It is also linked to unintentional injury. Almost 60% of fatally injured pedestrians had consumed alcohol. There is a high correlation between alcohol consumption and the likelihood of couples engaging in unprotected sex, contributing to the transmission of HIV; and adherence to antiretroviral treatment can be affected by excess alcohol. Here in the Western Cape and in the Northern Cape in particular, foetal alcohol syndrome is a serious problem. Alcohol abuse can also lead to liver disease, mental health issues, and other conditions. Therefore, the industry has a duty to acknowledge and communicate the health risks associated with excessive alcohol consumption. Advertising should not downplay or ignore these potential consequences.
Because South African society is so diverse, alcohol advertisers would be wise to engage communities to understand local concerns and perspectives as they plan advertising campaigns, both in terms of content and placement. An advertisement that might be appropriate and welcome in one context could be offensive or provocative in another. Consultation with community leaders, NGOs and other stakeholders can provide insights into the challenges faced by different communities.
By addressing the specific cultural and societal challenges in South Africa, alcohol producers and advertisers can contribute to more responsible and ethical promotion of alcoholic beverages.
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