What happens if I complain?

The Portman Group is the self-regulator for the marketing and promotion of alcoholic drinks in the UK. We administer the Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging, and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks and the Code of Practice on Alcohol Sponsorship. Formal complaints are adjudicated on by the Independent Complaints Panel (Panel) and formal rulings are published on the Portman Group website.

This year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Code. In that time, we have investigated 257 cases through our formal and informal resolution processes and seen over 160 products removed or amended. In this blog, we’ll answer some of the most frequent questions we receive about complaints.

Who can complain?

Anyone can make a complaint about the naming, packaging, promotion or sponsorship of an alcoholic product and we will investigate all matters brought to our attention.

Complaints from members of the public are kept anonymous. Complaints from competitors, organisations or individuals with a commercial or specialist interest in the alcohol industry will be named.  We name these organisations to ensure a fair and transparent process; a producer subject to complaint has a right to know if the complainant falls into one of these categories.

What if a complaint is vexatious?

To ensure that complaints are treated equally and fairly, all complaints are subject to the same process formalised in the Code.

The Portman Group provides the Secretariat function to the Independent Complaints Panel and will ask complainants certain questions to establish whether the complaint can be taken forward.  However, it is not for the Portman Group to determine the validity of the complaint itself.  It is our role to ensure that there is a fair and robust system for complaints to be considered by an independent Panel.

How many complaints are needed to trigger an investigation?

Only one. Alcohol marketing is regulated in the UK by Ofcom, the Advertising Standards Authority and the Portman Group. All three regulators operate on a one complaint basis for consideration.

Why do you act on one complaint?

Alcohol is an age-restricted product, and it is important that companies market alcoholic products in a socially responsible way, only to those aged 18 and over, and in a way that does not appeal particularly to those who are vulnerable – these are the core principles of the Code. Every consumer, regardless of the product or promotion, has a right to have concerns heard through a fair and transparent process that can address any potential harm being caused. We are all consumers in our day to day lives and when encountering an issue, most of us would expect a route for our concerns to be addressed.

It is important to note that numbers in and of themselves do not necessarily translate to a breach. This means that marketing in receipt of one complaint may result in an upheld ruling or conversely a product with 100 complaints will be considered fairly against the Code and maybe not upheld. The decision will be made purely on the merits of the case. This also means that marketing which attracts numerous complaints may not be found in breach of the Code.

It is not for the Portman Group to create an arbitrary threshold of complaint numbers in order for concerns to be heard. We understand that a concern for one person, may not be a concern for another, but it is for the Panel to determine whether a breach of the Code has occurred and this consideration will be on a case-by-case basis.

Is it fair?

Is it fair that one complaint can commence the process as it could cost a producer a lot of time and money?

We’re incredibly conscious of the time and cost associated with going to the Panel, especially where there is an upheld decision. This is why we offer a free Advisory Service to the entire industry so that producers can ideally discuss products ahead of launch so they understand how they may appear under the Code. We provide around 500 pieces of advice a year and help producers avoid costly mistakes with their marketing before going to production and sales.

Ultimately, it is our responsibility to regulate the industry. We have a duty to ensure that our Codes of Practice are adhered to in order to protect vulnerable consumers and to maintain the sector’s justified reputation for taking a responsible approach.

What happens next?

In the event of a complaint being referred to the Panel, the producer will always have a chance to respond to the complaint. This information is compiled into a factual, neutral dossier which will be given to the Panel for its consideration. The Panel are a lay Panel, and it is their role to judge complaints under the Code while bringing their own experiences as members of civic society.  You can find out more about how the Panel works here, but in a nutshell, having a complaint made about alcohol marketing does not automatically result in an upheld decision. The Panel will judge each complaint on a case-by-case basis, but the intent of the complainant is not taken into consideration.  For instance, a complaint about a gin bottle which particularly appeals to under-18s will be upheld regardless of the motive of the complainant; it is the product, not the complainant that the Panel will assess under the Code.

As a transparent regulator, all upheld and not upheld decisions are published in full on our website.

want to know more?

If you find that you have a question that is not answered here, please feel free to contact us at