ABAC tightens compliance rules

Alcohol advertising watchdog ABAC has announced that rules around compliance and penalties would be tightened in the wake of a “marked increase” in complaints.

In its annual report and review for 2019, the organisation said that the increasing role of social media and the growth of small, independent breweries and distilleries has changed the landscape of alcohol advertising, altering the marketing techniques used by the alcohol industry.

During the year 128 complaints were made resulting in 68 determinations by the panel, with 39 upheld.

The watchdog said that as a result of greater awareness of ABAC, smaller alcohol manufacturers were looking to its pre-vetting service, which saw a 37 per cent rise in pre-vetting requests in relation to alcohol packaging in 2019.

Overall pre-vetting requests rose 25 per cent to 2,192, with 346 of those rejected prior to entering the market.

ABAC said that the Independent Brewers Association has announced that it will develop educational materials to further raise awareness of ABAC requirements.

“This on-going co-operation is appreciated,” they said.

The IBA has also indicated its intention to join the scheme. If it does, it may be entitled to a seat on the board which includes representatives from the Brewers Association (consisting of CUB/AB InBev, Coopers and Lion) as well as Spirits & Cocktails Australia and Australian Grape & Wine.

Tightening rules

ABAC has previously been accused by critics of the code of having little power to enforce its rulings, especially to non-signatories.

As a result, it has announced a series of measures in its 2019 review to tighten rules and available enforcement measures.

It has stipulated that content and placement breaches need to be remedied within five working days, and orders for alcohol packaging and marketing collateral in breach of ABAC standards must be ceased immediately.

“As of December 2019, ABAC also placed a time limit of 3 months on the sell down of existing stock found in breach of ABAC,” it said in its annual review.

The rules now explicitly state that ABAC may take action if a company fails to comply with an ABAC decision.

ABAC said that it would now be allowed to notify relevant state liquor licensing authorities, media platforms and associations, Government, media and other relevant organisations of the marketer’s failure to comply, and it will terminate the marketer’s status as a code signatory.

ABAC has also put together a new compliance guide, providing checklists and examples of acceptable packaging.

Craft beer

Chief adjudicator of ABAC, Michael Lavarach, said that complaints and determinations regarding the name and packaging of alcohol products significantly increased last year.

The most complained about marketing communication in 2019 was the Kelloggs Cornflakes Nitro Milkshake IPA from One Drop Brewing, with four separate complaints.

“In large measure this has coincided with the expansion of the craft beer sector and the distinctive and often edgier style of packaging adopted by producers in this market segment,” he explained.

Lavarach acknowledged that craft brewers as an industry group were not members of the scheme, but despite this, “fully cooperated” with the panel – irrespective of whether the decision required the removal or modification of product packaging.

Another trend that ABAC recognised was the introduction of no-alcohol beers into the Australian market.

It said that despite its alcohol content (or lack thereof), alcohol-free beer was considered a brand extension of the alcohol company, and as such, ABAC still applies.

“The Code was designed for alcohol beverages and some of the provisions sit awkwardly when applied to a non-alcohol beverage.”

Lavarach recommended that the brand extension area of the code should be reviewed when it is next updated, although ABAC did not indicate when that might be.

Social media

ABAC said that the vast majority of upheld complaints in 2019 – 75 per cent – related to social media activity, marking a huge increase.

“The desire of manufacturers to be creative is understandable, but they must have regard to community expectations of alcohol marketing and meet the ABAC standards,” said ABAC chair Harry Jenkins.

ABAC revealed that of the advertisements on digital platforms over which it made a ruling, 42 per cent were Instagram posts, 26 per cent were from Facebook posts, and 13 per cent from the company’s own website.

There has also been confusion throughout the year regarding the ‘timelessness’ of social media, ABAC acknowledged.

“Once posted, the marketing item can be accessed months if not years later and this has resulted in some matters coming to the Panel relating to quite old material,” Lavarach, the chief adjudicator of ABAC said.

He said that while the date of the marketing can be considered ‘irrelevant’ as it can be accessed at all times, the “dynamic nature” of most platforms means that
material which is months or years old is hardly likely to come to the attention of a reasonable user of the platform unless a specific search is undertaken.

He recommended that this practical aspect of the scheme be examined in future, but said that the onus remains on marketers to ensure their marketing is compliant to ABAC.

Contrastingly to social media complaints, there was a decrease in placement determinations in 2019 to less than half those in the previous year.

ABAC said this indicated that alcohol advertisers and platforms are improving their systems for responsible placement of alcohol marketing, having become more aware of the rules.

Read the full 2019 annual report here.

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