The Ad Standards Council (ASC) is the advertising industry body in the Philippines tasked with screening and regulating content of advertising materials across all mediums. Ads with alcoholic beverage themes, in particular, have to be approved by an ASC Professional Screener before they can be aired, published, or displayed, and should include the government’s mandatory “Drink Responsibly” statement. But how is this statement depicted in these ads?
For example, in the current print ad of San Miguel Pale Pilsen, a popular brand from San Miguel Brewery, the “Drink Responsibly” statement, along with other details, can be found on the lower left side of the copy. The ad has a screaming white headline (BUY 2 BOTTLES OF SAN MIGUEL PALE PILSEN 330 ML AND GET 1 PAIR OF STATEMENT SOCKS) against a red background. However, the small white text of “Drink Responsibly” at the bottom left corner is difficult to read against the same red background. In fact, the “Drink Responsibly” statement looks as if it is about to be crushed by the beer bottle towering above it, or as if it is about to be used as a coaster.
We can observe the same pattern in the ads of other alcohol companies such as Emperador Distillers, Asia Brewery, and Bel Mondo Italia.
And what about TV commercials?
In one of the latest commercials of San Mig Light, the “Drink Responsibly” statement is found in the very last second of the 30-second commercial. Although the statement is readable and is even placed in the center of the screen, it again receives less visual emphasis given its plain font, in contrast to the stylized font of the ad’s “Mahaba-habang Inuman” headline. The ad does not even include an auditory warning; up to the very last second, the last words spoken, or in this case sung, are the brand name.
If alcohol companies were truly concerned with the well-being of their consumers, why aren’t they making the “Drink Responsibly” statement more prominent in their ads? Are they being ethical in their marketing?
Ethics professors Laura Hartman, Joe DesJardins, and Chris MacDonald posit that one indication of ethical marketing is when consumers’ consent is “informed”; that is, before they exchange their money for goods, consumers receive all needed information simply and without deception.
The warning is in the ad, but what is it really warning about? Studies have shown that excessive alcohol consumption can weaken the immune system, cause depression, and even increase the risk of death. Don’t consumers need to know this?
Also, the local ads depict alcohol drinks as liquid courage. Is this not deception?
So what can government do to address this issue? Perhaps it can find inspiration in our cigarette ads.
To inform Filipinos of the consequences of tobacco consumption and exposure, president Benigno S. C. Aquino III in 2014 signed into law Republic Act No. 10643, which requires tobacco packages to include graphic health warnings and to remove misleading descriptions such as “low tar” or “ultra lights,” which may convey false health benefits.
First, the ASC could require a minimum font size for the “Drink Responsibly” statement in print and digital ads so that it can be easily read. Right now, no size is prescribed. And if consumers can’t see the warning, it might as well not be there.
Second, the ASC could require alcohol ads to include a minimum amount of air time to inform viewers about the consequences of over-consumption and establish clear guidelines on how alcohol companies can emphasize the warning visually and auditorily. These guidelines need not require the displaying of disfigured faces or spoiled organs, as with tobacco products. Brief statements on the latest statistics and research on the effects of excessive alcohol consumption are some ways of advertising alcoholic drinks responsibly.
Third, the ASC could prescribe a more specific warning (for example, “Drink only X amount”).
Last, the ASC could evaluate if its code of ethics needs revising.
Although the Code has specific provisions such as disallowing the depiction of liquids entering the mouth, other provisions are ambiguous. For example, the code states that alcohol ads must not show alcohol consumption as a requirement for social acceptance. What does this mean? The Code also provides that TV alcohol ads should “flash” the “Drink Responsibly” statement in “a separate frame with no other copy or visual at the end of the material.” But for how long? Only a second, as seen in the ads.
A business exists to provide value to people and to promote their development, and it can and should accomplish these objectives without having to deceive the public for the sake of profit.
Gilberto V. Bilog II is an MBA student at the Ramon V. Del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University. He wrote this essay for his class in Lasallian Business Leadership, Ethics, and Corporate Social Responsibility during his first term in the MBA program.