PR launches for so-called ‘alcopop’ drinks are facing media hostility
and the attentions of anti-drink watchdogs in their uphill struggle for
Fifty or so TV crews, reporters and photographers squeezed into trendy
Soho bar Saint last week to sample Carlsberg-Tetley’s latest alcoholic
soft drink, or alcopop, - the tangerine-flavoured, jelly-like drink,
Nervous of accusations over targeting underage drinkers, the brewer and
its PR adviser, Mark Borkowski, scrapped their original ‘wacky, Mission
Impossible-style’ launch in favour of an informative, no frills
Carlsberg-Tetley’s research and development director, Tom Wright, took
pains to explain the brewery’s detailed research into the ‘elusive youth
market’ - which he defined as 18-30 year olds - using youth categories
developed by advertising firm St Lukes.
But Thickhead’s childish appearance meant ‘underage’ to listening
journalists. When, after receiving a grilling on the issue, Wright
revealed that drinks industry watchdog the Portman Group had asked
Carlsberg-Tetley to make the word alcoholic more prominent on labelling
to minimise its appeal to kids, the reporters left - Thickhead still
fizzing on their tongues - with what they saw as the real story.
The Yorkshire Post’s headline ‘Alcopop row over teenage drinkers’ was
typical of the following day’s coverage, while the Daily Mail chastised
Carlsberg-Tetley’s ‘cynical marketing men’ who were helping to sustain a
‘yob culture’. The drinks giant is now recalling its entire stock for
relabelling - at a cost of at least pounds 100,000.
Aside from leading to the postponement of Borkowski’s PR campaign, and
the ditching of his proposed poster advertising drive, the incident is
likely to have a wider affect on the marketing of alcoholic carbonates,
most of which are launched with PR alone.
‘Before I took on the account I knew it would raise heat,’ says
Borkowski. ‘The Portman Group made Carlsberg-Tetley an example.
‘It’s a very clear indication that they [the Portman Group] are flexing
their muscles and won’t stand on the fence any longer,’ he adds. ‘I will
be very surprised if it is not looking at public relations.’
The Group, run by an alliance of brewers, set up a voluntary code in
April to monitor the naming, packaging and merchandising of alcoholic
beverages. The code discusses the prevention of the ‘use of imagery of
or allusion to under 18 culture’ but only invites complaints over
advertising and sales promotion which are then passed on to either the
Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), Independent Television Commission
(ITC) or the Radio Authority, depending on the medium.
The regulation of public relations is a much greyer area. ASA head of PR
Caroline Crawford says PR is included in the code, but Mark Bennett,
spokesman for anti-drink abuse lobby Alcohol Concern, would like to see
some stricter regulations.
Bennett also questions whether Group members, which include Whitbread -
reported to be testing an alcoholic crushed ice drink in the Slush Puppy
vein - and Bass, which makes the market leading alcoholic lemonade,
Hooper’s Hooch, are the best people to police a code.
‘We would welcome tighter guidelines for PR,’ says Bennett. ‘It’s
anomalous that everyone goes to great lengths to introduce advertising
guidelines, but breweries can express their aims in other ways. There is
clearly a loophole that could do with being closed.’
‘There are opportunities there for PR and if they are taken there is
very little we can do but moan about it,’ adds Bennett.
Lynette Royal, public affairs director at Portman Group member United
Distillers, which launched a gin alcopop, Ginzing, last month, insists
she has seen no evidence of wilful abuse of any public standards by the
PR industry and believes the industry can be ‘self-regulated’.
Bass Brewers external communications manager Lesley Allman is also
cynical about media noise over Thickhead, having seen it all before when
Hooper’s Hooch launched 15 months ago.
Allman appeared on all the prime-time news stations when the underage
issue was linked to Hooch.
Firefighting work continued for the first four months but has now
‘balanced out’. Bass sells 2.5 million bottles of Hooper’s Hooch a week
and the drink has, she says, been accepted by the drinking public.
‘The issue comes and goes,’ she says with a sigh. ‘There is always a
lobby who will leap on any new innovation.’ Allman adds that the only
time the media chose not to cover the subject was when the Scottish
Council on Alcoholic Drink released a study which showed that although
86 per cent of under age drinkers are familiar with Hooch, only 11 per
cent chose to drink alcopops, opting instead for cheaper, stronger
beverages like cider.
Allman disputes the idea that PR is used for alcopop launches to escape
the tighter regulations imposed on advertising. ‘There has never been an
element of this,’ she says. ‘PR is useful for explaining a new product
sector. Youth like to discover something rather than having it
advertised at them.’
Borkowski, still waiting to hear if he is to pick up his campaign for
Thickhead when bottles return to shelves with a new label, is now less
sure what the future role of PR will be in promoting new alcopops and
warns: ‘It will be increasingly difficult to launch these products
without encountering the wrath of the media.’