ABAC survey explores alcohol advertising perceptions

The Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) has undertaken a wide-ranging survey to ensure its rulings align with community standards.

The advertising watchdog commissioned JWS Research to survey 1,500 people to explore public perceptions of alcohol marketing in Australia and whether ABAC adjudications and the issues raised within them and the code aligned with community expectations and public standards.

The survey looked into public awareness of the standards and complaints process, and the level of concern people have about alcohol advertising generally.

To determine whether its adjudications aligned with community standards and expectations, it tested participants with 14 advertisements that ABAC had previously ruled on.

ABAC upheld eight of the advertising complaints and dismissed six, utilising its ‘reasonable person’ test, which takes into account what the panel believes to be public understanding of the issues raised in the complaint and the stipulations of the Code.

The survey participants initially only found two of the 14 advertisements unacceptable.

Once the participants were made aware of the Code and its stipulations, they largely concurred with the Code’s judgements. Only one was considered to have been conservatively upheld by the Adjudication Panel.

The survey also found that one of the major concerns participants had in relation to alcohol marketing was regarding potential accessibility and appeal to minors, which is already covered and regularly discussed within the scheme framework.

“This confirms the high standards the ABAC Responsible Alcohol Marketing Code sets for alcohol marketing in Australia,” Harry Jenkins AO, chair of the ABAC Scheme, said.

However, one issue that arose was awareness of Ad Standards and ABAC. Just over a third (35 per cent) of people surveyed reported being aware they can complain to Ad Standards about alcohol advertising and only 17 per cent were aware of the ABAC process.

Issues raised by ABAC adjudications

A number of issues facing the brewing industry in recent years were highlighted in the report.

One recent issue both ABAC and the wider industry has been grappling with is the ethical treatment, marketing and positioning of zero alcohol versions of beer, wine and spirits.

As a result, ABAC asked participants whether alcohol companies should be allowed to promote non-alcoholic beverages without the restrictions that apply to alcohol products. Only 24 per cent disagreed, with 46 per cent agreeing with the statement.

The other is whether a general audience would understand certain names and styles of beer, such as ‘milkshake’ or NEIPA.

Only 11 per cent of participants connected a Juice NEIPA with an alcoholic beverage, 15 per cent knew that a Fruit Gose or a NEIPA were alcoholic, and 17 per cent that nitro milkshake or smoothie sour were related to beer.

Despite the insistence of some brewers that the general public would understand these terms, ABAC has ruled previously that indicators of alcohol content and style were not necessarily enough to denote an alcoholic drink.

Criticisms of ABAC

In the past, ABAC has faced criticism previously from several camps.

In a report earlier this year in which it admitted that its employees were regular complainants to the ABAC system, the Cancer Council said that ABAC was “inadequate and unsuitable, resulting in a system that fails to protect the community”.

The charitable organisation criticised the scheme as being funded by the alcohol industry and also said that there were “very few controls” on alcohol marketing in Australia.

This is a claim that many in the alcohol industry would no doubt refute given that its marketers are not only beholden to ABAC but also the Federal Competition and Consumer Act and State Fair Trading legislation, the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, the Australian Association of National Advertisers Code of Ethics, commercial television and radio codes of practice, and the Outdoor Media Association Code of Ethics and Alcohol Advertising Policy, not to mention individual state rules regarding alcohol marketing.

In terms of concerns within the community about alcohol advertising, the ABAC survey found that 60 per cent of participants said they have had no concerns about alcohol advertising, labelling or packaging over the last 12 months.

16 per cent rated alcohol advertising as a significant cause for concern and only 7 per cent say they have been ‘very concerned’ about alcohol advertising, labelling or packaging over the last 12 months.

However, those who are conservative in their views on alcohol advertising were more likely to be aged 55 years and over, though conservative views are present across all age cohorts, the survey found.

The Cancer Council was not available for comment.

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