Alcohol Action Ireland February 2023

You’d be forgiven for thinking that we were well on our way to becoming a nation of teetotalers, such is the vociferous marketing of zero alcohol drinks – products that only make up 1.5% of the Irish drinks market.  

Exponential growth in zero-alcohol products is something that is currently being bandied about by the alcohol industry. Certainly, there is growth but from a very low base. What is definitely really increasing is their interest in marketing them. It’s not hard to make the connection between their mass marketing and the new legal landscape facing the alcohol industry. 

Zero alcohol ads are not being pushed because the alcohol industry wants us to drink less but because of new laws banning where they can advertise their products.  

It’s a happy confluence of events for the industry that this is happening at a time when the zeitgeist is one of wellness and self-improvement, something the industry is happy to align with, while not actually taking actions to improve public health. 

Protecting people’s health from alcohol is the raison d’être of the Public Health Alcohol Act (PHAA). The aim of the Act is to reduce alcohol use by 20% across the whole of the population and a key part of this is to reduce the level of alcohol marketing in Ireland. It is being implemented painfully slowly and industry attempts to erode its intention every step of the way. This is just the latest phase in what it sees as a game to maintain the status quo. 

Brand sharing 

The PHAA measures to reduce alcohol advertising are in places that children inhabit- near schools, playgrounds, on trains and buses, in cinemas – and also on the field of play in sports. The modest measures – watered down significantly through industry lobbying, are also intended to protect the population in general from drowning in a constant sea of alcohol ads. 

Just as these legal mechanisms came into force, big alcohol brands began brand sharing – that is advertising zero alcohol beers using the same parent branding, logos, colours, everything. Not surprisingly, research indicates that this shared design successfully increases young people’s brand familiarity and affected their brand recognition and brand awareness 

It’s no coincidence that the very next day after PHAA restrictions came into effect, Heineken, which was advertising on buses in Dublin suddenly had the very same ad, just with a zero added, small and hardly visible on a large vehicle whizzing by. 

These ads are everywhere now that regular alcohol ads can’t be- on billboards, on public transport and on TV, especially during sporting events. This very much goes against the spirit of our world-leading  – and indeed lauded, laws, to protect us from ubiquitous alcohol marketing, which comprehensive research shows is harmful in terms of early initiation to drinking and in how much and how often people drink. 

Alcohol companies are really pushing the boundaries, with campaigns portraying zero alcohol drinks as something to drink in addition to alcohol rather than as a substitute – and in situations where it is illegal or dangerous to drink alcohol. This constant brand exposure for big alcohol companies works in their favour on all counts– it makes them appear to be conscientious actors who care about our health and allows them to advertise in restricted areas.  

Just as the tobacco industry makes candy flavoured e-cigarettes, the alcohol industry is expanding its reach into realms of life where alcohol currently doesn’t have a place. For example, Heineken’s ad campaign for ‘Heineken 0.0’ actually uses the tag line: “That moment you couldn’t have a beer… now you can”, with ads showing people drinking Heineken 0.0 while doing things like driving or going water-skiing. This is a worrying departure for an industry clearly on the ropes in terms of increasing and long overdue regulation. Because guess what, marketing really works and that’s why millions are spent on it every year. Research shows that children as young as two can recognise alcohol by the appearance of the bottle and can understand its use in adult culture. 

Brand sharing means that children who see people drinking what appears to them to be alcohol – because of the same branding – will at a young age be conditioned to think differently about when and where it is appropriate to drink alcohol. This will normalise drinking at every occasion – from the gym to the road to the waterways. The switch from zero to alcohol will be much more seamless in this scenario, but much more dangerous too given the settings in question. 

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