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Published:  23 July, 2008

By Jack Hibberd

The status quo is not an option' was the overriding message heard by delegates at the eighth annual Admap Alcoholic Drinks Conference held in London last week, tackling social responsibility, binge drinking and advertising. Delegate after delegate - including Hugh Burkitt, chief executive of the Marketing Association, and Andrew Brown, director general of the Advertising Association - stressed to the audience that the current alcoholic drinks advertising guidelines are inadequate and should be tightened to take account of the growing disquiet from the Government and the public on the behaviour of drinks companies. Five years ago, drinks advertising was not seen as a problem [by the Government],' said Brown, but now it has rocketed up the political agenda'. He urged drinks companies and the advertising agencies they employ to follow the spirit as well as the letter' of regulatory codes or face political backlash. Chris Searle, executive director of Bacardi-Martini and vice-president of the European Spirits Producers Federation, continued on similar lines. If we do not take remedial action we will end up with a [regulatory] process that may be very unsatisfactory,' he said. The current environment is scarcely a place where regulators are likely to condone risky ads, and if we continue to push the boundaries, as we are legitimately expected to do, we can't be surprised if those boundaries shrink.' He also said that the Government's Strategy Unit report into alcohol misuse had set the scene for the alcohol debate to be in the public domain. We, as major advertisers, must engage with government agencies as the next stage of the policy development gets under way. It's in our interests that the Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy does not inflict long-term damage on our industry and its brands.' According to Searle, the industry must make sure the serious issue of alcohol misuse is not confused with more topical issues of binge drinking and its after-effects. This is a very complex area, and we should challenge the recent assumptions published in the [Strategy Unit] report If we get it wrong, we'll spend a long time regretting it.' A number of delegates, including Searle and Jean Coussins of the Portman Group, said that the Government should fund an education programme targeted at 16- to 24-year-old adults to help them understand the benefits of drinking well and the consequences of immoderate consumption'. The success of the drink-driving campaign was proof that young people can understand inherent risks, he said. Rita Clifton, chairman of Interbrand, told delegates that their most valuable and sustainable corporate resource' is their reputation, and that risking that would inflict long-term harm on both their companies and the industry.