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STAP: High compliance of alcohol ads proves shortcomings rather than effectiveness self regulation

Reaction of STAP to Advertising Compliance Monitoring Report 2007 by the EFRD

By W.E. van Dalen Msc, director of STAP

The European Forum for Responsible Drinking (EFRD), a social aspects organization set up and funded by the drinks industry to defend its views in the alcohol policy debate, has recently released a report on advertising compliance monitoring.

The results of the report, that describes a very high overall compliance rate for TV spots and print ads to voluntary rules of the alcohol industry (95.6%)[i], can however be interpreted in very different ways.

According to the industry, the high compliance of the industry with the self regulatory codes of conduct on advertising is the proof that self-regulation for alcohol advertising works. More plausible is the argument that voluntary regulations are not able to completely exclude most harmful elements in alcohol advertisements in order to protect youngsters.

The EFRD report: can be downloaded from

- Extensive monitoring exercise

The research is conducted by self regulatory organisations (SROs) in 15 European countries. All ads broadcasted on TV or published on print (a total of 5620 ads in 2006) are monitored to examine whether these ads are in breach with national voluntary rules and/or European voluntary rules of the alcohol industry. Whether these alcohol advertisements comply with rules of the industry is identified by self regulatory organisations (SROs) in which the industry itself is united. Biased results due to this possible conflict of interest are supposed to be counteracted by three “independent” reviewers[1].

- Findings show effectiveness self-regulation codes and incompetence of Loi Evin?

The very high compliance rate of the reviewed ads in the report sounds marvellous. SROs found that only 249 ads were non-compliant (4,4%). According to the alcohol sector, this underscores the effectiveness of voluntary rules. Ads from France were tested against the French regulation which is fixed by law (the Loi Evin). Sponsorship and advertisement on TV and cinemas is not permitted. When advertisement is permitted its' content is controlled. Messages and images should refer only to the qualities of the product (such as degree and origin). In addition, a health message must be included. The report shows that 103 of the 249 non-compliant ads were from France. Ads in all other sampled countries were not tested against statutory regulations, but were tested only against voluntary codes and had a significantly lower number of ads that non-comply. According to the report, the findings illustrate the effectiveness of self-regulation and the difficulties of the industry with the correct interpretation of the Loi Evin. However, the French ads are only evaluated against the Loi Evin and not against the European voluntary code by the EFRD.

- Shortcomings voluntary rules

The high compliance rate of the reviewed ads with self-regulation codes is not surprising at all. It shows the ineffectiveness of the regulations to completely exclude harmful elements (e.g. social success) in alcohol advertisement rather than an effective self regulatory system. STAP has several years of experience in monitoring self regulation in the Netherlands. STAP is facing difficulties in the self-regulation code which will be similar with the common standards of the EFRD. We will give a few examples to show the shortcomings of the existing voluntary rules which are limiting the content of ads rather than the volume.

- Showing attractiveness advertisement is problematic

Alcohol advertisers may not use elements in ads which are primary appealing to minors. Measuring the level of attractiveness of elements in ads is already difficult; measuring whether ads are significantly more attractive to minors than to adults is even more problematic. To claim that an ad is primarily appealing to minors requires extensive research on the attractiveness of a specific ad for minors and for adults.

- Social, sportive and sexual success is justified

Alcohol advertisers may not suggest that the ‘consumption' of alcoholic beverages enhances sexual, social or sportive success. We can see that the consumption of alcohol is often not visible in the advertisements. However, it is free to show an association between alcohol and sexual, social or sportive success as long as the advertisement does not make the causal visible link between drinking the beverage and the subsequent success.

- Use of humour

Humour is a frequently used element in alcohol advertisement. Research shows that humour in advertisement is perceived as very appealing to youngsters (Chen et al., 2005)[ii]. More appealing alcohol ads strengthen increasing alcohol consumption. Voluntary rules, however, do not limit the use of humour in alcohol advertisements in any way.

- High compliance shows inappropriateness of self-regulation codes

The ELSA project shows that alcohol ads are still highly appealing to European youngsters.[iii] The high compliance rates of ads in the monitoring exercise demonstrate that voluntary rules are not able to classify these appealing and harmful elements in alcohol advertisements in their regulations. The way the codes are formulated does not prevent alcohol advertisements from being very attractive.

- Non-compliance rate of French advertisement does not show incompetence Loi Evin

The high non-compliance of French ads says something about the enforcement which could be enhanced. Contrary to the explanation of the EFRD, the high non-compliance demonstrates the advantage of the French statutory regulation. It shows that the restrictive French legislation is clearly able to identify breaches. As the EFRD already mentioned in the report, an analysis of ads against the Common Standards of the EFRD might have led to different results. It is plausible that French ads which are now in breach with the Loi Evin will show total compliance with the vague and less restrictive voluntary rules of the alcohol industry.

To find out more about Social Aspects organizations funded by the alcohol beverage industry to represent the industry in the alcohol policy debate and to manage issues that may be detrimental to its business visit

[1] One of the reviewers is Jack Law, Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland. This organisation is co-funded by the alcohol industry. Another reviewer is Pat Cox who was not only President of the European Parliament, but also leader of the European Liberal Democrats (ELDR). The final reviewer is the former director of the BVP - Bureau de Vérification de la Publicité - in France, Lucien Bouis. Both Jack Law and Lucien Bouis served as reviewers for research conducted by Brewers of Europe as well.

[i] EFRD (2007). Advertising Compliance Monitoring Report 2007. Brussels: European Forum for Responsible Drinking.

[ii] Chen, M.J. et al. (2005) Alcohol advertising: what makes it attractive to youth? J Health Commun, 10, 553-565.

[iii] Minors in 9 European countries are asked about their most appealing alcohol advertisements.

STAP (2007). Appealing alcohol beverages and marketing practices in Europe. The Netherlands, Utrecht: National Foundation for Alcohol Prevention.