Will advertising self-regulation ever work? Evidence from the alcohol industry suggests not …

Can we expect advertising and marketing self-regulation to operate in the interests of women and girls or in the interests of disadvantaged and vulnerable groups more generally?

In considering this question it is perhaps instructive to look at the example of alcohol industry self-regulation and the exposure of young people to alcohol advertising and marketing.

There are no alcohol advertising bans in Australia. The only restriction that the Federal Government places on alcohol advertising relates to the times that such advertising can be broadcast on television. As such, Australia has a system for alcohol advertising that is largely self-regulatory.

Under this system, the alcohol and media industries operate according to several codes of practice, the most significant of which is the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC).

The Code is funded and administered by the alcohol industry and applies to all members of the Brewers Association of Australia and New Zealand, the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia Inc, and the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia.

The Code is described as being “designed to ensure that alcohol is marketed in a responsible manner. Signatories to the Code are committed to ensuring that their marketing complies with the Code’s spirit and intent”.

Among other things, the Code requires that alcohol advertisements must not appeal to people under the age of 18, or associate alcohol with social, sporting or sexual success. This is in recognition of the fact that young people are particularly susceptible to such messages, but also that they are the group at greatest risk of harm from drinking.

The Code forms a part of the ABAC Scheme, along with a pre-vetting service and a complaints and adjudication process that is available to members of the public.

The ABAC Scheme is overseen by a Management Committee which is made up of a representative from each of the abovementioned associations, as well as a representative of the Communications Council and the Government.

The Management Committee appoints the pre-vetters for the Alcohol Advertising Pre-vetting System and these pre-vetters can be used by alcohol advertisers (at their own cost) to determine whether or not their proposed advertisements conform to the Australian Association of National Advertisers Code of Ethics (AANA) — this is the code that specifies limits to the use of sexual appeal in advertising — or the Code before they are released publicly. The pre-vetting service is voluntary and the outcomes of the vetting are not binding — advertisers are not obliged to change their proposed advertisements in line with the recommendations.

The Management Committee also appoints the members of the ABAC Adjudication Panel, which arbitrates on complaints made regarding alcohol advertisements. The Panel must have a health sector representative as one of the minimum three members required to adjudicate on a particular complaint.

Over the years, several reviews and reports have been highly critical of this self-regulatory system, arguing that it is ineffective in controlling alcohol advertising.

Despite changes having been made to the system in response to the negative findings of a Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy review conducted in 2003, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) has pointed out that “the ABAC remains a voluntary code with limited scope, limited government representation, no means of enforcing panel decisions, and no penalties for non-compliance”.

Perhaps most importantly, the ABAC Code and Scheme have consistently been found to have failed to protect Australian children and adolescents from exposure to alcohol advertising and promotion. Further, the evidence shows that at least some of this advertising and marketing is specifically designed to appeal to young people, in clear breach of the Code.

If we translate this evidence to the advertising industry — and there’s no reason why we can’t — it’s no wonder Ad Standards continually fails to protect women and girls from sexual exploitation in advertising.

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