ASIA PACIFIC: AUSTRALIA
COMPETING ALCOHOL ADVERTISING WATCHDOG
Authors: Lai Lynn Choong & Johan Pietersz, Thomsons Lawyers
A new organisation called the Alcohol Advertising Review Board (AARB) was launched on 16 March 2012, under the auspices of public interest groups including the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth. AARB aims to consider and adjudicate complaints from the community about alcohol advertising under its own Code (the Alcohol Advertising Review Board Code). This is a separate and additional scheme to the current quasi self regulatory scheme, the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code Scheme (ABAC), administered by the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB).
AARB claims to address the following matters, which it perceives to be deficiencies in the current alcohol advertising system, namely that:
• the ASB system for arbitrating the ABAC is voluntary, which means the ABAC does not cover the whole industry and non-signatories are unregulated;
• the ASB has no power to penalise advertisers who breach the codes;
• the ABAC only deals with the content, not the placement, of advertisements;
• the ABAC only covers certain forms of direct advertising (it does not cover sponsorship, for example, of sports or music events, or product placement in music videos);
• the ABAC lags behind new media - it does not effectively cover social media, which is a major channel for alcohol advertising campaigns; and
• that taking a complaint is difficult, confusing and slow-moving.
The current supporters of the AARB are charitable institutions and public interest groups, such as Cancer Council Western Australia and the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth. The AARB is not supported by the major alcohol organisations and is largely panned by the industry, including by the ASB, Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia, Brewers Association of Australia, New Zealand and the Australian Hotels Association and Australian Liquor Stores Association.
Although the ABAC Scheme does not cover the whole industry, all members of the Brewers Association of Australia and New Zealand, the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia and the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia are signatories to the ABAC scheme. Of the top 50 alcohol advertisers 41 are signatories and 9 are non-signatories. The 41 signatories account for 98.4% of the spending of the top 50 alcohol advertisers.
Whilst the AARB Code does address a broader range of advertising than the ABAC, it does not provide any solution in respect of enforceability. Under AARB Procedure 2.3(h), if the adjudicating panel decides that a complaint is to be upheld, the AARB will contact the advertiser to request withdrawal or modification of the advertisement. There does not seem to be any incentive for advertisers to comply with these requests, apart from poor publicity. Additionally, proponents of the ABAC are concerned that the AARB system may confuse consumers as to who to contact with their concerns.
It remains to be seen what impact (if any) the AARB Code will have, taking into account that it has failed to gather support from the ASB and the Australian Association of National Advertisers. It is likely however that a self-appointed adjudication system with no ability to enforce its decisions and no industry support will have little impact on the alcohol advertising industry in Australia.