Hannah Pierce, Sarah Jackson and Julia Stafford
What happened when the alcohol industry was in charge of alcohol marketing regulation during the COVID-19 pandemic?
We answer this question in our new report, Giving the ok to Stay In. Drink Up, produced in partnership by the Cancer Council Western Australia and Cancer Council Victoria. Spoiler alert: Alcohol companies cannot be trusted to protect our communities voluntarily.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed our lives in a multitude of ways, and the alcohol industry was quick to respond. With hospitality venues including bars, pubs and clubs closed and people’s movements limited, companies adapted their marketing seemingly overnight.
Alcohol companies adopted innovative marketing techniques, promoting easy access to alcohol without leaving the house, and drinking alcohol to cope, survive, or feel better during the pandemic. For example, Dan Murphy’s hosted Thursday Night Trivia live on Facebook, encouraging Australians to ‘grab a drink and get ready’; while Jacob’s Creek offered online wine tasting tips, encouraging people to become wine connoisseurs when ‘stuck inside’. Engagement with alcohol brands on social media was over 300% higher in March 2020 compared to the previous year.
Why should this concern us? Because people were not only more vulnerable to alcohol marketing messages due to stress and anxiety, as well as spending more time at home and online; they were more at risk from alcohol use.
Alcohol use makes people more vulnerable to COVID-19 by weakening their immune systems. It can also exacerbate mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and increase the frequency and severity of violence at home.
Yet there are virtually no rules in place to stop the alcohol industry from using the pandemic as an opportunity to push more alcohol on to the Australian community. The Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) Scheme, which administers a voluntary alcohol marketing code, is managed and funded by the very same companies that spend millions of dollars every year promoting their alcohol products.
In examining how the ABAC Scheme responded to complaints about alcohol ads that referenced the COVID-19 pandemic, we found several examples where the system failed to prevent, or act on, harmful marketing during the pandemic. Alcohol ads including the phrases ‘Stay In. Drink Up’, ‘survival kits’, and ‘all day every day’ were deemed acceptable.
Our new report demonstrates how existing industry codes failed the nation and put the community at even greater risk of harm. We identified five problems with a reliance on the ABAC Scheme to regulate alcohol advertising during the pandemic:
- The objective of the ABAC Scheme is inadequate and unsuitable, resulting in a system that fails to protect the community, and particularly those who are most vulnerable to harmful advertising of alcohol.
- Key terms in the ABAC Code are not clearly defined, leading to the dismissal of complaints about promotions that encouraged drinking in the home during lockdown.
- The ABAC code provisions are too narrow to capture all the themes alcohol marketers are using during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as encouraging stocking up on alcohol or implying that alcohol will help you ‘survive’ the pandemic.
- There is no monitoring system, so it’s not possible to know how often alcohol companies are ignoring the rules.
- There are no meaningful penalties for advertisers who breach the ABAC Code, providing very little incentive for alcohol companies to avoid using harmful messages during the pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, the ABAC Scheme has ‘rejected’ the findings in our report, claiming that the small number of complaints related to the pandemic indicated “there wasn’t a widespread use of the pandemic in alcohol marketing”. But with no monitoring system, how do they know what marketers are doing? Public complaints to a system that very few community members know about or have had cause to trust are far from a complete measure of industry activity.
The ABAC Scheme also noted that the marketers found in breach of the ABAC code “tended to be smaller producers with none of the breaches originating from ABAC signatories”. This is another weak argument, considering an effective system should be mandatory for the whole industry.
Our report concludes that it is unethical for alcohol companies to target Australians at their most vulnerable. Governments need to put people before profits and introduce higher standards for how the alcohol industry markets and sells its products. It is time for the ABAC Scheme to 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 report, Giving the ok to Stay In. Drink Up, was jointly authored by Hannah Pierce, Sarah Jackson and Julia Stafford.