ABAC refutes pandemic marketing criticism

In an unprecedented move, ABAC has refuted claims from the Cancer Council that it was ineffective at dealing with pandemic-related marketing, after the councils admitted that they themselves had complained to the alcohol advertising watchdog.

The Cancer Councils of Western Australia and Victoria attempted to take a potshot at the ABAC Scheme, a voluntary code supported by Australian alcohol companies, in their joint Giving the ok to ‘Stay In. Drink Up’ report released yesterday.

In it, the Council called ABAC “ineffective” saying that there are “very few controls on alcohol marketing in Australia” and highlighting that the ABAC Scheme is funded by “the same companies that spend millions of dollars every year promoting their alcohol products”.

As part of the study, the Cancer Council scraped determinations from ABAC in 2020 that were pandemic-related in some way. It said it found 18, and of those, 11 complaints were upheld and 7 were dismissed. It said these “several examples” showed that ABAC had failed to prevent or act on what the organisation considered to be “harmful” alcohol marketing during the pandemic.

However, Harry Jenkins AO, independent chair of the ABAC Management Committee said that this very small amount of advertising complaints indicated that alcohol companies were not using the pandemic excessively in marketing.

“Throughout 2020, of the thousands of alcohol advertisements in the market, 19 alcohol advertising complaints were received that touched on the pandemic or associated government restrictions in some way indicating there wasn’t a widespread use of the pandemic in alcohol marketing and 14 of these complaints originated from the authors of the report and their colleagues,” he said.

“We note that the Cancer Council media release and report is based on complaints captured by the ABAC system and dealt with by the independent ABAC Adjudication Panel in an open and transparent manner.

“It is great to see organisations such as the Cancer Council using the ABAC system and the prompt and effective action from advertisers in response to determinations resulting from their complaints,” he said.

The authors of the report all work for the Cancer Council in some capacity, from legal policy directors to research coordinators and program directors.

Twelve of the complaints which ABAC dealt with, Jenkins said, were found to breach code standards and were withdrawn.

“They were found by the independent ABAC Adjudication Panel to use the references in the context of pivoting to online and contactless sales options rather than to promote excessive consumption of alcohol or suggest that alcohol was a suitable coping mechanism during the pandemic,” he explained.

“The ABAC determinations served to educate the industry on unacceptable marketing practices surrounding this new societal issue and COVID-related complaints significantly decreased after the early stages of the pandemic demonstrating the efficacy and efficiency of the ABAC regulatory system. “

The Cancer Council report

The Cancer Council report lays a number of charges at the feet of ABAC, declaring its overall objectives vague, in addition to criticising its handling of pandemic-related marketing.

The report also critiqued the alcohol industry, saying that alcohol companies are “using the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to sell more alcohol, and have been using marketing tactics that take advantage of people’s vulnerabilities during COVID-19 restrictions”.

“Alcohol companies cannot be trusted to protect our communities voluntarily,” it declared.

The Cancer Council called ABAC’s objectives “inadequate and unsuitable” saying that key terms are not clearly defined, which it claims leads to complaints being dismissed. This is an argument that has been leveled at ABAC before, and the watchdog has accepted that its rules over issues like brand extensions and non-alcoholic brands related to alcohol companies were not perfect, but they were attempting to adapt to keep up with changes in the industry.

The Cancer Council suggested that the provisions in ABAC are too narrow and that they don’t capture issues like stocking up on alcohol or implying that alcohol will help people ‘survive’ the pandemic.

This was despite a number of ABAC rulings during the pandemic dismissing complaints for exactly those reasons, which fall under rules which prevent the portrayal or suggestion of excessive consumption of alcohol in marketing materials, as well as provisions that stipulate that marketing cannot be portrayed as having any health or therapeutic benefits.

“ABAC refutes misleading and selective claims by the Cancer Council today,” Jenkins said in the response from the ABAC Scheme yesterday.

“The Cancer Council asserts that industry codes failed to protect the community from harmful alcohol advertising during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There was a noticeable correlation between COVID-themed Code breaches and marketing (all of them via digital platforms) from businesses pivoting from usual sales channels to online distribution given the impact of pandemic restrictions These marketers tended to be smaller producers with none of the breaches originating from ABAC signatories.”

Jenkins said that ABAC welcomes “constructive feedback” and strives to align with prevailing community standards.

In the report the Cancer Council, which lists “Excellence. Integrity. Compassion.” as its values and declares that “quality research underpins everything we do”, listed surveys that purportedly backed up claims that “some” Australians have increased their drinking during the pandemic.

The Cancer Council also returned to the largely debunked ‘study’ from the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education which allegedly found 107 alcohol adverts on a single individual’s Facebook and Instagram account in one hour on a Friday night.

However, it did not refer to any of the reports or analysis which found that drinking levels had actually gone down, even those that used Australian Tax Office data over self-reported surveys.

The Cancer Council also did not mention that its Western Australian branch has its own version of ABAC, the Alcohol Advertising Review Board, which appears to be defunct as of January 2020, apparently in favour of making complaints to ABAC.

The report concluded by saying that alcohol marketing should become a government-led initiative.

“The voluntary industry codes must be replaced with independent, legislated controls that protect the Australian community from harmful alcohol marketing, both during the pandemic and in the future,” the Cancer Council declared.

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