Beer Matters

Sex, Lies and Red Tape

You probably saw the headline a couple of weeks ago – the latest initiative in the government’s crackdown on binge drinking among the young is the suggestion that alcohol advertising should only feature paunchy, balding men. Sounds reasonable enough to me.

Which reminds me – when I happened to mention in the pub that I’d been to a meeting of the British Guild of Beer Writers, someone asked “Do they all look like you?”. Well, no, of course they don’t. Several of those present were young ladies who didn’t look at all like me. But, on the whole, my friend’s suspicions weren’t far off the mark; beer writers do tend to be male, middle aged and of fairly ample girth, and there were not a few beards present, including that of the venerable Michael Jackson (the Beer Hunter, not the other one). In case you were wondering, the beer was excellent (not that any landlord in his right mind would serve anything less with fifty critics in the room) and plentiful and there were some interesting bottles to sample.

But to get back to advertising - I have been reading the Revised TV Alcohol Advertising Rules produced by the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice*. The stated purpose of these rules is to discourage excessive drinking (excessive in this context meaning in excess of the Department of Health’s Recommended Daily Amounts), especially by young people (meaning apparently anyone under 25).

It’s strong stuff. Not only “Advertisements must not show, imply or encourage immoderate drinking.” but also “References to, or suggestions of, buying repeat rounds of drinks are not acceptable. (Note: This does not prevent, for example, someone buying a drink for each of a group of friends. It does, however, prevent any suggestion that other members of the group will buy any further rounds.)”. That seems a bit steep. Buying rounds is a British tradition and regarded by many drinkers (but by no means all) as a social obligation (yes, you, Artaxerxes). It also reflects the fact that our beers are generally weaker and designed for drinking in greater quantities than continental ones.

“Advertisements must not suggest that alcohol can contribute to an individual’s popularity or confidence .... nor may they suggest that alcohol can enhance personal qualities.” Older readers who recall a vile, gaseous beverage called Whitbread Tankard and the slogan “It’s Tankard that helps you excel; after one you’ll do anything well” might be inclined to concur with that one, but it presumably rules out humorous and clearly preposterous claims (remember the Heineken tanker and the non-leaning tower of Pisa?). Is the viewer not to be credited with any common sense at all?

“Advertisements must not suggest that sexual activity or seduction has taken place or might take place”. Does it matter? Any young fellow rash enough to think that a few pints might improve his performance will soon find out to his embarrassment that this is not the case. On the other hand, using the word sex to grab people’s attention is frightfully bad form anyway, don’t you think?

Racing drivers should note that “Alcohol should not be thrown or poured over people”. A curious one, that. I would agree entirely but, if the aim is to stop people putting the stuff down their necks, why the objection to pouring it elsewhere?

“and the choice of a type or brand of alcohol instead of another should not seem to contribute to the success of a social occasion”. Just what are they getting at? From Nanny’s point of view it ought not to matter what’s in the glass so long as it’s consumed in moderation, but has it not occurred to them that, for the poor advertiser, the promotion of the brand is the sole object of the exercise?

I do find these rules faintly disquieting. I said “Nanny” but Big Brother might be nearer the mark. One particularly chilling phrase caught my eye: “This rule is intended to prevent viewers thinking that immoderate consumption of alcohol is acceptable” (my italics). I’m glad I don’t watch television.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that excessive drinking should be encouraged, nor am I oblivious to the social, medical and emotional problems it can cause. And I do acknowledge that one drink can lead to another. Whereas, early in the evening, it may seem perfectly reasonable to choose between going down the pub or opening a bottle of wine with dinner, three pints later and sitting down to eat, the case for opening the bottle as well becomes compelling. What concerns me is the definition of excess (i.e. the amount most of us drink in the pub after practice night would be beyond the pale) and the soulless, authoritarian tone in which the message is put across.

And are they barking up the wrong tree by worrying about images of glamour and seduction? If there’s one thing that encourages me to drink more, it’s quality. Give me a well-cellared pint with a fresh, hoppy nose, a depth of flavour and just the right amount of body to slip down easily and I’ll be back to the bar before you can say “summer lightning”. If it’s dull and lacklustre and fails to excite the senses then I can take it or leave it. Strangely the BCAP doesn’t seem bothered about quality – but perhaps they’re not interested in ageing TV-less ale suppers like me.

Maybe more on this later.

Maximus Bibendus

* If you’re really interested see http://www.cap.org.uk/cap/alcohol_consultation/Section+2.htm.

Reproduced by kind permission of The Ringing World.

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