Advertising’s job is to inform and influence, ultimately leading your consumers to make purchasing decisions that create your commercial success.
Wielding the power to inform and influence, however, comes with responsibilities that organisations must take seriously. Marketers and business owners make decisions with their advertising that can lead people to behave in a certain way, sometimes including changing habits and making decisions that have consequences. This is an immense power and marketers should be conscious about the wider affects of their advertising output.
No more is this the case than when advertising alcohol products. I probably don’t need to list them here, but with the risks of harm from alcohol to people ranging from underage drinking or excessive consumption to anti-social behaviour, disorder and even sexual assault, advertisers dealing with alcohol must be responsible in their approach.
Indeed, one industry-supported organisation exists to provide regulation to alcohol producers and advertisers – The Portman Group. You will no doubt have seen reference to their long-standing ‘Drink Responsibly’ campaign on many alcohol-related adverts. They have spearheaded advances in alcohol producers and sellers taking a socially responsible approach to marketing.
“The most po-faced, fun-free, nanny-state judgement imaginable…”
This was the response from the Scottish Gin Society to a recent ruling by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA). A series of social media posts made by the Society were reported to the ASA by a local authority health body. You can see a report by BBC News here.
I don’t necessarily agree with all of the judgements the ASA makes, personally. Some I think are overbearing and some seem unfair, but they are the regulator for advertising and it is our job as marketers to respect the decisions they make and to take action appropriately. But in this case, it would appear that the Society’s messaging was inappropriate and created a real risk of harm to members of society.
Whilst it is never nice to see marketers making mistakes like this (and I’d hate to be the marketing director who signed it off!), when we do cock up, what’s important is we take responsibility when we get it wrong. The Scottish Gin Society, of course, has a right to reply to the ASA’s ruling and to comment publicly on it – I’d forever defend this right myself – but what saddens me most is seeing the Society’s public response taking absolutely no responsibility for their actions:
SGS, which is sponsoring the Scottish Gin Awards in Glasgow later this month, said it would be nominating the ASA for the “Humour Bypass Award”.
Creating posts which send – or even simply imply – the message that alcohol consumption can resolve emotional difficulties or enhance sexual prowess and that create the idea that excessive drinking is a normal behaviour can surely not be considered humour? Perhaps in the 1990s, but not in 2018. What makes the error of this messaging more stark is the problems alcohol consumption causes in the Society’s home county – Scotland.
Humour and responsibility aren’t independent concepts
In Scotland in 2017, there was 1,265 deaths in the year and 670 hospital admissions per week that were a direct consequence of excessive alcohol consumption. I’d hope I was the last person to have a sense of humour failure, but I see nothing funny in those figures.
This is real harm to real people. And when marketers use their tactics to promote irresponsible behaviours, they exacerbate the effects of this harm. Any marketer worth their salt knows that they must consider their audience for their campaigns, but simply targeting a group of people for their propensity to buy doesn’t go far enough in this consideration when potentially harmful products are on sale.
The Scottish Gin Society accepted no responsibility for the promotion of the memes they used. They claimed them not to be advertisements. The ASA supported this claim and I support it too – they weren’t adverts. They were, however, posted to a marketing channel and to an audience that was engaged with the Society – existing and potential customers. This does constitute advertising, even if the content itself wasn’t strictly an advert.
I’m not going to be a hypocrite and say I didn’t crack a smile at the posts: I can see the lightheartedness of them. I can appreciate why they would be construed as a bit of fun. But then, I’m not at risk of harm from alcohol – many people among the Society’s audience may well have been. And with organic amplification of those social media posts, the potential for wider exposure of individuals who may be at risk of harm is very real. This is where the Scottish Gin Society’s responsibility kicks in.
The point here is that we can be funny as marketers – and we absolutely should be, humour is an emotion our advertising should be and is tapping into. But we shouldn’t put humour ahead of our real responsibilities for our audiences. Our power is staggering and often underestimated: we must use it properly.
The advertising messages we create are responsible for changing people.
How we describe our products and services, the contexts we wrap around them and the tactics we use to convince our audience to make choices in our favour are the key constituents of how our advertising works. When we craft a message, we must take account of those who will benefit from our advertising – as well as those who will suffer harm.
Our advertisements create habits and behaviours, they influence people’s decisions and these communications can change mindsets and opinions. That’s one of the most incredible things about marketing and advertising – we have a very real power to shape the world.
In this respect, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) exists in the UK to oversee organisations’ adverts, ensuring that their approach is sensible, fair and doesn’t damage our society. As a responsible marketer, Groof believe that the role of the ASA isn’t one of ‘policing’ but rather representing common sense and decency – sometimes us marketers can get into our creative groove and get carried away, forgetting that the perspective of consumers is what we’re appealing to.
Sometimes we just need to come back down to earth.
This opinion piece comes from the mind of James Barnes, Managing Director at Groof. Please feel free to leave your thoughts, opinion and comments in the comments section below. (Images courtesy of BBC News)