Mark Wnek on advertising

Drinkers, not admen, should take the blame for our booze culture
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The Independent Online

The nanny state is threatening to suffocate the advertising industry in its ever-ampler bosom. Coming up next month are new rules for alcoholic drinks advertising, from Ofcom, the Government's television regulator. As if the socially excluded and ill-educated young drunks knocking seven bells out of each other every Saturday night in every town across Britain do so because of beer commercials. Surely, enough criminal lawyers have had their clients sent down after trying the "my client murdered this family in cold blood because he saw someone do it on the telly" defence for people to know that nothing you see on television (and that goes for commercials too) can make you do anything you aren't predisposed to do.

The nanny state is threatening to suffocate the advertising industry in its ever-ampler bosom. Coming up next month are new rules for alcoholic drinks advertising, from Ofcom, the Government's television regulator. As if the socially excluded and ill-educated young drunks knocking seven bells out of each other every Saturday night in every town across Britain do so because of beer commercials. Surely, enough criminal lawyers have had their clients sent down after trying the "my client murdered this family in cold blood because he saw someone do it on the telly" defence for people to know that nothing you see on television (and that goes for commercials too) can make you do anything you aren't predisposed to do.

But it's not just beleaguered drinks companies - powerless to stop pubs and clubs offering a "£10 for all the vodka kicks you can drink" night, yet required to take the blame for the mayhem that follows - that nanny is targeting.

The Government has cottoned on to the fact that if people over-eat they may grow fat and perhaps even fall ill. Parents, teachers and all manner of carers for the young should be extremely vigilant and educate their charges accordingly, I hear you say - entirely reasonably. Except that it's not so simple for politicians. Those in government have sat in enough focus groups to know that if they dare urge voters to do things like be personally responsible for themselves and their families, voters will become annoyed and tell them to mind their own business, typically via the ballot box. How much neater it is for governments to nudge the responsibility for over-eating towards The Manufacturer, ancestral home of that easy target, and perennial bête noire of the public imagination, The Fat Cat.

One of the ways governments do this is via the press, by means of the "call upon". I paraphrase a recent news item: "Culture minister Tessa Jowell today called upon the UK food industry to stop whipping the public in to a frenzy of gluttony with their adverts about how tasty their deep-fried cod pieces are and agree to produce adverts highlighting the fact that these products can be fatal if eaten more than 875 times a day."

The genius of the "call upon" is that the next thing that's mentioned, in this case "the UK food industry", instantly and for ever more takes on the appearance of Satan. I suspect I'm not alone in this, but I find blaming McDonald's for making tasty burgers as odd as blaming God for making brazil nuts: both will slowly make you go spherical and eventually explode unless you control your intake.

It may not be a trendy cause, because it's unashamedly pro-commerce, rather than pro-baby seals or something, but when precisely did good old-fashioned food- or drink-selling, via the television set or anywhere else, become reclassified as pushing? If your child is old enough to understand and be motivated by commercials, he or she is also old enough to be educated not to swallow them whole. That's what parents and teachers are there for. And governments. And nannies.

Why sports stars could be the great persuaders

One of the most strictly upheld rules governing TV advertising of alcoholic drinks is the one prohibiting the use of sporting figures because they're heroes of the young. So why not use that to your advantage? Take soccer stars: what better advertisement for sensible drinking? They're stick-thin and whippet-fit - and they didn't get that way by hitting the booze.

I can see nothing wrong with a commercial for, say, Guinness, featuring Britain's best player, Frank Lampard. Frank sips his pint and says, "If I'd been drinking underage, my football would have been crap. I wouldn't be playing in the Premiership, I'd be watching it on telly. Of course, I enjoy the odd drink. Who doesn't?" Cue endline: "Guinness. Just the one when you're having just the one."

Of course, there is much terrible drinks advertising out there, most of it holding up a mirror to the lads and ladesses who buy in bulk and reproducing their anti-social behaviour. It's this kind of stuff that leads to rule tightening.

Perhaps before the rules get so tight that alcoholic-drinks advertising is strangled to death, someone needs to be creative. How about for every five brand commercials they produce, each alcoholic-drinks manufacturer offers to make one commercial warning of the dangers of alcohol abuse or promoting sensible drinking?

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