We’re seeing more and more in the news, mostly through Portman Group rulings that beer is appealing to children. The idea that cartoons on labels make the beer appeal to kids is, let’s be honest, quite frankly stupid.
But cartoons, children. THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!!
Okay, let’s think of the children. Firstly, what age group classes as a child? Secondly, what actually is appealing to them? There’s a simple way to look at this: let’s see what kids’ shows are on the telly seeing as we’re talking about cartoons.
CBBC is our first stop, and 47 list of shows there includes just 6 cartoons or cgi animations. Over on CITV there’s a different bias with 36 animated shows and only 16 live action ones. In total though, 57 live action shows and 42 cartoon/cgi shows.
Looking at the actual shows and the age ranges they’re aimed for, there’s also another split. The cartoons and animations are definitely aimed more at the younger children with the live action aimed at the older kids.
Do cartoons appeal to children? Yes, but only to younger kids. The sort of kids who are supposed to be in bed by 8. Not the sort of young adults who are hanging around parks drinking cheap alcopops that their mate with a fake ID got.
Yes, there’s generalisation in there, but the overall thing about alcohol appealing to children is this: Underage Drinkers Are Rarely Children.
This then brings us to the question: Should breweries not make their beers appealing to young children?
Well, obviously not. Targeting young children is incredibly irresponsible. Any brewery putting characters such as Pudsey Bear or any of the freaks from Paw Patrol on their cans really needs to think about their target audience. But when it comes to using cartoons or cartoon-style artwork that’s not tied to a children’s television show there really shouldn’t be a problem. Even if a can had cartoons that might be seen to appeal to young children, the cans are available in stores where a minimum age verification is required. You can not buy alcohol if you are under 18. The problem may however lie in that once the beer is home, it may be stored somewhere that a young child can access it, such as a floor-level fridge. But is that the beer industry’s responsibility or that of the parent? Should parents be taking more responsibility for their children’s actions rather than passing that responsibility off onto a faceless industry? In short, should it be the parents themselves thinking of the children?
And now let’s think of the underage drinkers. Those mid- to late teenagers that the Temperance Movement (and their trust fund offspring The Institute of Alcohol Studies) worry about being attracted to alcohol; these folks aren’t attracted to cartoons. Well, not kids’ cartoons. Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, American Dad, Rick and Morty… these are all cartoons aimed at older teenagers and adults. They’re screened after the watershed, an industry-imposed time when younger kids are believed to be in bed and safe from the world of fake violence. Could a similar system be put in place to stop young kids accidentally getting access to beer with cartoons on the label? We already have one, it’s called minimum age. Remember, you can’t buy alcohol unless you’re over 18. And that’s a lot harder to get around than staying up past your bedtime. To see what does appeal to underage drinkers though, you just have to look at those drinks that are targeted at them. Energy drinks such as Monster and Red Bull are the two main ones. Either edgy text in contrasting colours, or clean corporate lines. Not a cartoon in sight. In fact, the closest to a cartoon is the Red Bull logo.
Banning cartoons on beer labelling is stupid. It’s too blanket a ban and it doesn’t do anything to help with underage drinking as it’s addressing the wrong audience. The audience it’s claimed to be targeting, the young kids, are more interested in Vimto (yes, I live “Up North”) and Pepsi Max. A cartoon on a can isn’t going to change their minds. Just look at how much Pepsi and Coke spend on their marketing budgets if you think an illustration of a cuddly bear might sway them.
The Portman Group’s code 3.2(h) states that packaging should not “have a particular appeal to under-18s” and this is where and why we have this issue.
Do beer labels with cartoons on appeal to under 18s? Yes, very likely. Do they appeal to underage drinkers? No, not really.
No parent or teenager I’ve spoken to while writing this piece believes that underage drinkers (including those teenagers) would want to be seen dead drinking a “kiddies” drink. They don’t want the bright colours, the fruity names, the cartoons. They want the edgy. Just look at the branding of Strongbow Dark Fruits, the drink currently synonymous with underage drinking.
If the code was reworded to state that packaging should not “have a particular appeal to underage drinkers” then I think a lot of recent decisions would have gone a different way.
In recent decisions, Delirium Tremens (now just Delirium) had a complaint against it overruled. The complaint was about the name and association with drunken hallucinations, pink elephants and crocodiles. This was considered by the board to not be a strong enough cultural association. I do wonder however: if the complaint was that the cartoons appealed to children, would the ruling have been different? Taras Boulba recently had a complaint against it upheld because of the association with violent or aggressive behaviour. Its label is a cartoon and if anyone has ever watched an old Tom & Jerry cartoon, or even a recent Family Guy one, this sort of behaviour is rampant. The argument that cartoon or video game behaviour leads to real-life aggression and violence has been proven wrong time and time again. If the label however was a staged photograph, then it would be a different case. Juicebox recently also fell foul, but not because of a cartoon, just because bright-coloured oranges and the word “juice” make it appealing to under-18s. This is a classic example of the “wrong audience” where it may be seen as appealing to young children, but not to underage drinkers. Mid- to late teens would know whether it was alcoholic or not, there would be no confusion. As for the younger children, breweries aren’t their parents. Tiny Rebel’s Cwtch fell foul due to a complaint by a member of the public (who seems to have complained about a few drinks). The complaint was that it was a brightly coloured can that appealed to under-18s, and he couldn’t tell it was alcoholic. The second part of the complaint was not upheld. The panel thought that the alcoholic nature of the drink was clearly stated. Yet they upheld the part about it being appealing to under-18s. The packaging for this drink was famously changed previously with the advice of the Portman Group themselves to meet the code guidelines, yet fell foul again due to a single complaint from an anonymous (to us) member of the public.
And now we have Lost & Grounded’s Running With Sceptres. Because someone was thinking of the children.
So what can be done to solve this problem? Initially I’d suggest that “appeal to under-18s” is taken as meaning “appeal to underage drinkers” and that in the next iteration of the Code the wording is changed. Also I think we need to acknowledge that the current panel at Portman Group or an agency they employ to check labels, no matter how well intentioned they are, aren’t going to know what is or isn’t appealing to underage drinkers. Rather than screaming THINK OF THE CHILDREN we need to find out what the children actually think, the expertise is there on the panel and needs to be used in the right way. We also need to be asking parents to think of, and accept responsibility for, their own children. Going forward we also need a system whereby a single complaint from a member of the public does nothing more than generate a letter to the brewery in question informing them of the complaint. It should take more than one person to kick the process off, in any aspect. I also believe that we need a wider industry consultation panel, made up of a few dozen people who work at breweries of all sizes, ideally in marketing or social roles, who can provide a first line of reference. Not to have a say in whether a complaint is upheld or not, but to put forward industry views that can be considered by the panel.