11 December 2014
Considered under the 4th Edition of the Code.
I wish to lodge a complaint to the independent complaints panel regarding the packaging and promotion of cans of 9% super-strength lager containing four and a half units of alcohol….
This complaint focuses on the particular contradictions arising from the marketing of these products. These drinks are produced in 500ml cans that cannot be resealed and contain four and a half units of alcohol. Typically they are consumed by single individuals…the consumption of a single can takes the individual above the government’s own daily alcohol unit guideline limits of 2-3 units for a woman and 3-4 units for a man.
The Portman Group’s Code of Practice states that ‘a drink, its packaging and any promotional material or activity should not in any direct or indirect way encourage illegal, irresponsible or immoderate consumption….3.2(f). The production of Skol Super in unresealable cans containing four and half units of alcohol in excess of government’s daily alcohol units guidelines therefore breaches rule 3.2(f).
Under Code paragraph 3.2(f)
A drink, its packaging and any promotional material or activity should not in any direct or indirect way encourage illegal, irresponsible or immoderate consumption, such as drink-driving, binge-drinking or drunkenness.
The company’s submission
The producer started by saying that the basis of the complaint was focussed on the fact that one 500ml can of Skol Super, containing 4.5 units of alcohol, which could not be resealed, would exceed Government’s suggested safe drinking limits if consumed by one person. The producer believed that the complainant’s argument was also based on the assumption that pack size, type and whether a product could be re-sealed or not also controlled consumers’ consumption patterns. The producer presented independent research which it believed showed that assumption to be incorrect.
The producer pointed out that Government advice on sensible drinking was expressed as guidelines and not strict limits, and that these guidelines referred to a man not regularly exceeding four units on a daily basis; the use of the word regularly was key as it indicated that on occasion it was acceptable to consume more. The producer went on to say that another reason why the guidelines should not be used to determine packaging size was because the guidelines suggested different tolerance levels for men and women, but that products could not be produced for men only, to the exclusion of women. The producer believed that it was never the intention of the Code for well-established packaging sizes to be regulated by Code paragraph 3.2(f) and that instead the purpose of the rule was to discourage marketing activity and messages that promoted drink-driving, binge-drinking and drunkenness.
The producer mentioned that the same product had been subject to the same complaint in 2008 and at that time the Panel did not uphold the complaint. Therefore, in the producer’s view, given that nothing had changed in the intervening years, the Panel should come to the same conclusion.
The Panel’s assessment
The Panel noted that the product had been subject to the same complaint in 2008 and on that occasion the Panel had not upheld the complaint. The Panel, however, decided that in view of the length of time that had since elapsed it should not necessarily be bound by that precedent. The Panel considered that it should be responsive to changes in the prevailing climate in society including the growing focus by local authorities on products that were believed to be disproportionately consumed by problem drinkers.
The Panel studied the research data the producer had provided; they felt it was not clear what it was trying to illustrate and sought clarification from the producer. The Panel also asked the producer if it could present data on the proportion of people that regularly consumed super-strength products, and what proportion of those consumed irresponsibly. The producer said only 0.1% of off-trade purchasers had consumed super-strength beer in the last seven days, compared to a total figure of over 64% for total alcohol. The majority of super-strength consumers drank more than one can; from the producer’s perspective this showed that can size did not affect consumption.
The Panel felt it was important to explain that the number of units in the container was being used as an indicator and was not the only factor on which it would base its decision: the units in the container were assessed in combination with other cues such as the packaging type (size and resealability) and the overall impression conveyed by the product, and in particular the strong cultural assumption that products packaged in a can were designed for consumption by one person in one sitting.
To better understand this cultural assumption, the Panel asked the Secretariat to commission independent research to understand whether packaging influenced consumer behaviour, i.e. how consumers interacted with cans. In a survey by YouGov of over 2000 adults 80% of those surveyed believed that a 500ml 9% abv can was designed for the contents to be consumed by one person in one sitting. The data was similar for a 440ml 4% ABV can. The data also showed that only 2% of people thought these cans were easy to reseal once opened. The Panel shared this view. They felt, that consumers would not share the contents of a can, or reseal it saving it for another drinking occasion, but that instead the contents would be consumed by one person on one drinking occasion.
The Panel also addressed the producer’s argument that a ruling against four units would rule out all other containers: the Panel discussed this and concluded it was not relevant to the complaint (and container) before them; that they should consider the issue only in relation to cans.
In response to the information that the majority of super-strength consumers consumed more than one can and therefore it was not the can size that affected consumption; the Panel disagreed with this rationale. Although it was right to say that the can size did not encourage a consumer to consume more than one can, it did influence the consumption pattern in respect of a single container. Consumer research had convincingly shown that the contents of a can were likely to be consumed by one person on one drinking occasion, regardless of the size of can or the strength of the product.
The Panel noted that one 500ml can of Skol Super contained 4.5 units; 0.5 units above the guidelines Government recommended men should not regularly exceed on a daily basis, and 1.5 units above the guidelines for women. One Panel member said they had downloaded the NHS ‘Change4life’ app and had worked through the ‘Drinks Checker’, which defined an average strength lager as 5% and a very strong lager as 8% abv. When the Panel member input one 9% beer in a 500ml can as a female consumer she received an amber warning saying she was at ‘increasing risk’ and she ‘needs to cut down for the good of (her) health’. This warning was received even on a one-off can consumption, which would lend support to the fact that this was considered to be immoderate consumption.
Furthermore, the Panel felt that because of the container type (not easy to reseal once opened), and the assumption that the product quality would degrade quickly once the can was opened, it was reasonable to expect that the contents would be consumed by one person in one session: this expectation was supported by the consumer research. The Panel also noted the can featured the text ‘best shared well chilled’, but were not convinced that consumers would be persuaded by the message to depart from the traditional pattern of consumption: by one person in one session.
In light of these factors, the Panel concluded that the product packaging encouraged immoderate consumption and thereby found the product in breach of Code paragraph 3.2(f).
 Consumer polling figures are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,031 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 13th – 14th October 2014. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).
Action by company
The company agreed to make changes to the combination of can size and ABV and the Portman Group issued a Retailer Alert Bulletin to ask licensees to not place orders for stocks of Carlsberg Special Brew 9% ABV in the existing 500ml can packaging, after 31 March 2015.