Hayden Fitzgerald: Brands can change way we drink

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Alcohol advertisers don't necessarily want consumers to drink more alcohol. What they really want is to increase profits. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Alcohol advertisers don't necessarily want consumers to drink more alcohol. What they really want is to increase profits. Photo / Paul Estcourt

Thirty years ago a four-pack of New Zealand-made beer priced at $20 would have been unsaleable. Who would have chosen such poor value over a swap-a-crate of draught beer or a cask of wine? Today such boutique offerings are not unusual.

If the products people purchase are any indication of where our drinking culture is headed, then the role of alcohol advertising has been misunderstood.

The Maori Party's Te Ururoa Flavell and the Green Party have said that when the Alcohol Reform Bill comes back to Parliament, they will amend it to toughen restrictions on alcohol advertising. Mr Flavell's version, being the toughest, would allow alcohol advertising only on premises where alcohol is sold.

Their logic, we have to assume, is borrowed from the Law Commission's report which said the restrictions on advertising drafted into the Alcohol Reform Bill were too lenient. It cited evidence that advertising can be linked to youth drinking more and drinking earlier.

Bang. Problem solved. There is international evidence, there is common sense, and there is the counter-cultural narrative that were it not for the evils of advertising then people would revert to more civil behaviour. What could be more obvious than less advertising leading to less drinking?

This is where our boutique $20 four-pack and the misunderstanding of advertising comes in.

For a start, alcohol advertisers do not necessarily want consumers to drink more alcohol. What they really want is to increase profits.

It is this dynamic which explains why the amount drunk per capita has declined, the amount of advertising has increased, and the sophistication of alcohol offerings has grown over the past 30 years.

In 1980 the regulation of alcohol advertising was turned over from the Government to the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, then to the industry-based Advertising Standards Authority as the broadcasting industry became deregulated. In 1992 brand promotion was legalised.

Over the period since, the possibility of increasing profits by promoting quality rather than quantity has opened up. Alcohol consumers have embraced this dynamic.

People now order wine by the grape variety. Not by the cask. If you go to a Speight's Ale House, itself an attempt at adding value through branding, you will find there are six different kinds of Speight's. The old Speight's Southern Man would not have a clue where to start.

It is no coincidence that drinking culture has become more sophisticated while advertising has been liberalised.

How do you introduce a classier European equivalent to the New Zealand market if you cannot sing its praises to the punters?

What local brewer or vintner will respond by innovating if they are not able to tell consumers what they have done?

Alcohol advertising restrictions would make it that much harder for the boutique start-ups to enter the market. Those who remain in the market would find their profits at the lowest common denominators of price and volume.

That is what Mr Flavell and company will unwittingly take us back to if they have their way.

Restricting alcohol advertising might just make some young drinkers drink less and drink later in life.

That will be a Pyrrhic victory if they kill something much more delicate; the embryo of a sophisticated 21st-century drinking culture here in the South Pacific.

History provides plenty of examples of government repression of drinking having terrible unintended consequences.

Prohibition in the United States gave us moonshine. Here, 6 o'clock closing turned drinking into a kind of government-enforced skulling race that would leave modern university students under the table.

The ultimate example of government control, the Soviet Union, produced a drinking culture so bland and voluminous that Gorbachev had to reduce vodka production as an economic growth initiative. Free people, on the other hand, will build a better drinking culture over time.

Advertising is a vital link in that culture because it connects producers and consumers. Government suppression will drive us back to the piss-swilling, vinegar-slurping dark days of yesteryear.

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