ABAC rules Hard Solo appeals to minors

Following a lengthy deliberation, ABAC has ruled that Hard Solo has breached the Code in appealing to minors.

CUB has responded advising that Hard Solo will be re-branded Hard Rated.

Asahi sparked controversy in August when it launched the alcoholic version of the lemon-flavoured soft drink.

While the company said it refuted suggestions that its “cross functional collaboration” could be confused with regular Solo or that it is being marketed to minors, the product drew criticism from health and anti-alcohol advocates, with concerns making their way as far as Federal Parliament where Independent MP Kylea Tink hosted talks with federal crossbenchers about tighter regulation for the marketing of alcoholic drinks.

ABAC’s decision is confined to consideration of the Code, the product itself served to crystalise broader issues around the role that flavour and its appeal play in the marketing of alcoholic beverages, something that does not come within the purview of the ABAC code.

Sweetened ready-to-drink beverages designed to mask the flavours of alcohol to aid drinkability have long been a target for criticism, however their branding has typically carried names associated with adult-oriented spirits.

This deflected criticism that the flavours appealed to, or even targeted, less mature palates. Adding ethanol to a well-known soft drink brand removed this pretence and cast attention not on marketing appeal to immature drinkers, but the flavour appeal of the category.

While it has announced intentions to change the name Hard Solo to Hard Rated, the CUB media release stressed that the “Hard Rated liquid will be identical to Hard Solo – the only thing that will change is the name and packaging,” which is likely to maintain focus on the role that physical attributes of a product play in the market place.

The length ABAC determination noted similarities with past debates about similar products, but also that the ABAC Scheme does not go to physical characteristics of an alcohol beverage such as colour, viscosity, alcohol content or taste.

“Nor do the ABAC standards go to the price of a product. And the Panel has no remit to make a moral or policy judgement about whether a product or marketing campaign is desirable or not. The Panel’s role is to assess if the branding and marketing materials of an alcohol product are consistent with the standards contained in the ABAC Code,” the decision noted.

Of course issues such as the taste of a product and its price are important as to the choices consumers make. Equally there is legitimate debate to be had about the policy settings around different styles of alcohol products. Within the shared regulatory space of alcohol and the marketing of alcohol, these questions rest directly with government and not the ABAC Scheme as such.”

The panel noted that the fact that product packaging might clearly identify that a beverage is alcoholic does not mean there is no potential for the branding and packaging to have strong appeal to minors.

“In fact, in most instances the packaging of an alcohol beverage does clearly establish the alcoholic nature of the product, but the packaging may nonetheless have a strong appeal to minors due to branding, design aspects and messaging,” it said.

“While ‘confusion with a soft drink’ can be a factor in why packaging might have strong appeal to minors, it is entirely possible for packaging that is not confused as a soft drink still to have features which strongly appeal to minors.”

Media Release

Hard Solo Packaging – ABAC Panel Decision Released

The ABAC Adjudication Panel (Panel) has determined that the packaging (can design) of the Ready to Drink alcohol beverage (RTD) ‘Hard Solo’ has breached the ABAC Responsible Alcohol Marketing Code (Code). The Panel’s decision followed the receipt of multiple public complaints raising concerns that the brand name and can design of the product strongly appeals to minors.

“The Panel decided that the packaging breached the standard contained in Part 3(b)(i) of the Code by having strong or evident appeal to minors. This followed careful consideration of the public complaints and the detailed submissions from Carlton & United Breweries (CUB), the producers of Hard Solo. The process involved CUB seeking a re-hearing of the Panel’s earlier provisional determination.” ABAC Panel Chair, Professor Michael Lavarch said.

“This decision was the first occasion the Panel has been called upon to assess the packaging of an RTD product with a brand name and core branding elements taken from a well-established and iconic soft drink brand.

“CUB were careful to devise a packaging design that identified Hard Solo as an alcoholic beverage and not a soft drink. However, the Panel believed a reasonable person would probably understand that as a household soft drink brand found in an estimated 1.7 million homes, stocked in supermarkets and convenience stores and marketed freely without the restrictions placed on alcohol products, Solo was an entirely familiar and relatable brand to minors. Using the Solo name and other branding features on Hard Solo would elevate the appeal of Hard Solo and create an illusion for minors of a smooth transition from the non-alcoholic to alcoholic variant of Solo.

“Hard Solo was a novel case in that previous RTD packaging designs considered by ABAC had been built upon emphasising an alcohol type or a well-known alcohol brand being combined with a soft drink such as cola or ginger ale. Hard Solo packaging in contrast is led by the brand recognition of Solo soft drink. Because of the novel issue, the number of complaints spread over a month and the two-stage process for final decisions on brand names and packaging, the Panel determination was lengthy, and the process has taken several months to finalise. Most ABAC decisions are made within 30 days.”

CUB have accepted the decision and have advised that in accordance with the ABAC Rules they have immediately ceased further orders for production of this packaging. Transition provisions apply to pre-existing stocks.

The ABAC Independent Chair, the Hon Tony Smith added “I am satisfied that the Panel has adopted a rigorous and considered process in making this landmark decision. The independence and integrity of the Panel and its combined expertise in law, public health and media is crucial in ensuring that its decisions are consistent with the ABAC Code standards, that are developed to reflect community expectations.”

Full decision

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