The thought of Absolut Vodka might conjure up images of a night you’d rather forget, but for some it brings back the unique, witty and downright legendary advertisements that this brand has produced for years. However, if South Africa follows in the footsteps of countries like France, Kenya, India, Norway and Ukraine, alcohol advertising may soon be a thing of the past.

The Department of Health, in an attempt to curb South Africa’s high violent crime rate, is targeting advertising. The department, along with numerous other government sectors, is spearheading the ban on alcohol advertising.

According to global news agency AFP, violence- and alcohol-related injuries are the leading cause of death in South Africa after HIV.

This comes after the Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi, addressed delegates at a World Health Organisation (WHO) conference on violence prevention at the end of last year.

“The driving factor behind this is alcohol, the harmful effects of alcohol. We’re not going to pull back about the issue of alcohol control, including the banning on advertising of alcohol,” Motsoaledi said. “It’s just a matter of time – it’s not an issue of whether, it’s an issue of when.” Recent reports by confirm that the Department of Health plans to have a drafted strategy targeting alcohol advertising by May of this year.

The South African government hopes that stringent laws governing the advertising of alcohol will mimic the effects of the Tobacco Products Control Amendment Act – a law against the advertising, promotion, sponsorship and free distribution of tobacco products – which was implemented in 1999. The International Development Research Centre maintains that this act helped reduce the number of adult smokers in the country by four per cent.

Proponents of this ban argue that the alcohol industry, together with advertising agencies, frequently target young people in their adverts. This is supposedly obvious when considering the beverage group known as “alcopops”. Supporters of this theory believe that these sugary and brightly coloured drinks (such as Brutal Fruit and Bacardi Breezer) are blatantly marketed for a younger demographic, with many maintaining that they appear to be aimed at under-age individuals. Advertisements promoting alcohol have also been accused of making drinking look fun and exciting, with no mention of the negative side effects. WHO backs these accusations by reiterating the fact that adverts for alcohol always portray drinking as “an emblem of success and a symbol of heroism, courage and virility.”

Critics are quick to respond to these claims. Research done by health agencies and universities around the world maintain that there is little evidence to show that advertising of alcoholic products is directly linked to violence, and that a ban would certainly affect the brands themselves but not necessarily alcohol abuse.

The International Center for Alcohol Policies has gathered evidence about the matter which it has already addressed to WHO. This research shows that alcohol consumption has actually decreased in the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom despite an increase in advertising. On the other hand, Ireland still remains one of the heaviest drinking nations despite the country’s ban on the advertising of spirits and its strict regulations on other alcoholic beverages. Therefore, it would seem that s no direct correlation between advertising and alcohol abuse exists.

Wayne Naidoo, chair of the Association for Communication and Advertising, argues that several media agencies will falter under a new law that places a complete ban on advertising. In particular, renowned agencies such as Ogilvy, Draftfcb and BBDO are likely to suffer due to their extensive work with alcohol brands.

Sport, being the most dominant medium for alcohol advertising, also seems likely to suffer under the new regulations. Several Formula One drivers, for example, depend on sponsorship from alcohol brands.

According to independent marketing analyst Chris Moerdyk, the South African government should plan carefully before the execution of this ban, as they are set to lose approximately R2,6 billion a year if the media and ad industries are cut. Moerdyk also predicts that the media industry in South Africa will suffer greatly. His estimations show that the SABC is set to lose R400 million if the ban materialises. Similarly, DStv and etv could lose R500 million, with radio, lifestyle magazines and newspapers losing a staggering R900 million. Furthermore, only a short-term drop of five to eight percent in branded alcohol consumption is expected. Moerdyk restates what the International Center for Alcohol Policies has said by agreeing that “research and experience tells us that advertising has no influence on alcohol abuse.” This is the reason why bans of this nature have failed and therefore been lifted in Canada, Denmark and New Zealand.

With the WHO admitting that there is little evidence to support the efficiency of advertising bans, perhaps it is time for the government and advertising industries to form a partnership in order to find a win-win solution. The advertising industry would do itself a great disservice if it decides to reject the opportunity for self-regulation under the watchful eye of the government. However, if proponents of this ban are successful, there is still the possibility of violent incidences related to alcohol decreasing – even if only by a small percentage – which achieves the goal set by the Department of Health.

“If saving our people earns us a title of being a nanny [state], I very much welcome that title,” Motsoaledi says with confidence. However, with evidence counting against the banning of alcohol advertising, it’s only through a holistic approach by government and the industry that we as consumers might still enjoy alcohol (and their advertisements) responsibly.

Photo: Jonty de la Hunt

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