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Consumer, Food & Retail Insights

| 6 minutes read

Distilling the new UK Rules and Guidance on Advertising Alcohol Alternatives

In light of the huge growth of alcohol alternative products (e.g. no or low-alcohol beers and mocktails), the UK’s Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) has introduced new rules, clarifying the extent to which the restrictions which apply to alcohol advertising also apply to ads for alcohol alternatives.   

The popularity of alcohol alternatives has risen, especially amongst the younger demographic, with a recent survey by YouGov in partnership with the UK alcohol industry body the Portman Group showing “nearly half (44%) of 18-24 year olds surveyed considering themselves either an occasional or regular drinker of alcohol alternatives, compared to 31% in 2022”. The results also showed an increase in respondents from all age groups (23% up from 21% in 2022) who noted a decrease in their alcohol consumption as a result of low and no alcohol products. The Portman Group noted that their research tells “a positive story of how low and no products have become an important and normal part of how the UK public moderate their drinking and tackle potential harm”. 

The new rules and guidance apply to ads promoting beverages with an ABV of 0.5% or less, which are marketed as alternatives to alcoholic drinks. Prior to the new rules, any products with an ABV of less than 0.5% were excluded from the rules on alcohol advertising, and there were no specific rules applying to ads for such products. It should be noted that for any ads which are ostensibly for products with an ABV below 0.5% but which actually have the effect of promoting a drink with an ABV above 0.5%, the rules on advertising alcoholic drinks will continue to apply in full. 

The reasons for the new rules and guidance are described in the accompanying Regulatory Statement: “Alcohol alternatives can be beneficial in offering consumers a means to reduce their overall alcohol intake, however given their adult audience and proximity to tropes and imagery relating to alcohol, CAP and BCAP considers ads for such products should be subject to specific regulations to ensure they are marketed responsibly”. 

When do the rules for alcohol alternative ads apply?

An ad will be subject to the alcohol alternatives rules “…if it is likely to be understood by the audience as an ad specifically for an alternative to alcohol…”. This is likely to be the case where a direct comparison with alcohol is made, including where:

  • terms such as ‘non-alcoholic’ or ‘ABV at or below 0.5%’ are used, or where a “deliberate and inherent comparison” of the product with an alcohol-based product is made;
  • consumers are encouraged to consume the alcohol alternative product instead of a comparative alcoholic drink;
  • the product is presented: (i) in a style which is associated with alcohol (for example, the shape of the bottle mimics one used for an alcohol-based beverage); (ii) being consumed in a setting where alcohol sales and consumption are common (for instance a bar), or alongside other people who appear to be consuming alcohol; and (iii) alongside other alcohol-based drinks or associated items; and/ or
  • the branding used is shared with an alcoholic drink that already exists.

According to the guidance, the ASA will consider the overall impression of the ad – terms such as ‘soft drink’ are unlikely to avoid the rules where there are other factors which would make the ad fall under the rules.

The ASA have noted that some fermented drinks, such as kombucha and kefir, which contain small traces of alcohol, are often marketed as soft drinks rather than alcohol alternatives.  The ASA have said that for such drinks, merely including “clarifying product information” stating the product is “alcohol free” or “0.5% ABV” will not render the product an “alcohol alternative”.  But if such information becomes “promotional” rather than “clarificatory”, the new rules are likely to apply. The ASA have indicated that the new rules are unlikely to apply where:

  • the ad does not promote the absence of alcohol as being a reason to purchase the product; or
  • the ABV/ alcohol-free reference is less prominent than other parts of the ad (e.g. appearing in an FAQ section, as opposed to in the body of the ad). 

Summary of the ASA’s new rules and guidance

The new rules have been added to the end of the existing chapters on alcohol advertising (chapter 18 of the CAP Code and chapter 19 of the BCAP Code).  They have been accompanied by detailed guidance on alcohol alternatives, summary guidance on "alcohol alternatives and zero alcohol”, and (in late June 2024) further guidance flagging additional areas of the advertising rules that can be relevant to ads for alcohol alternatives. Key points to distil from all this are:

  • References to alcohol trigger full alcohol ad rules – if an ad for an alcohol alternative refers to or depicts alcohol, that reference/ depiction must comply with the rules on alcohol ads (unless it is a mere reference to the brand name of an alcoholic drink, and the non-alcoholic product is being clearly marketed as the alternative);
  • ABV statements – ads for alcohol alternatives must include a prominent statement of their specific ABV (which must be within a range from 0.0 – 0.5% ABV). There is specific guidance for ads limited by time and space. 
  • Unsafe circumstances – ads for alcohol alternatives may market the product in circumstances where consumption of alcoholic drinks would be inappropriate or unsafe, such as prior to driving, provided that the product is clearly depicted as a non-alcoholic drink, and they do not condone drinking alcohol in the same circumstances. 
  • Excessive consumption - ads for alcohol alternatives must not contain content likely to disparage sobriety, or which encourages heavy, problematic, or otherwise higher risk alcohol consumption. They must not present alcohol alternatives as a way for drinkers to increase their alcohol consumption beyond responsible levels.
  • Targeting – ads for alcohol alternatives must not be likely to appeal particularly to people under 18, or be directed at people under 18, and the individuals shown in ads drinking alcohol alternatives must not be or seem to be under 25.

Cross-promotions

Owners of brands looking to market both their alcoholic and non-alcoholic products should approach advertising with caution to ensure that the rules are correctly followed, especially in instances of cross-promotion. 

Instances of cross-promotion are where an ad for an alcohol alternative product makes sufficient comparison or reference to alcohol, which then has the effect of promoting alcoholic drinks or a wider alcoholic brand, meaning that the rules for advertising alcohol also apply. For instance, the rules on advertising alcohol may apply where an ad for a range of alcohol-alternative drinks also features alcoholic drinks. To avoid being considered a cross-promotion, ads should focus on the alcohol alternative as opposed to the alcoholic product. Ads will not be seen as cross-promotion where there is a generic reference, such as where the non-alcoholic drink shares a brand name of a business which sells alcoholic drinks, provided that the advertising does not encourage irresponsible drinking. Comparative advertising which has the effect of promoting an alcohol brand or established alcoholic drink will be subject to the rules on alcohol ads, unless the focus is solely on the non-alcoholic alternative version of the branded product. 

Targeting and use of Influencers

In its latest guidance, the ASA has stressed that the new rules on targeting ads for alcohol alternatives are the same as the targeting rules for alcoholic drinks, meaning that ads for alcohol alternative products must not appeal to under 18s, or feature characters that would appeal to that demographic. In light of this, the ASA has reminded brands that they should be cautious in their use of influencers, as they may have a strong appeal to under 18s. In addition, individuals promoting alcohol alternative products in the ads must not be under 25. For further guidance on the use of influencers in marketing more widely, please refer to our Influencer Marketing Guide

Portman Group Guidance

Earlier this year, the Portman Group (the industry body regulating alcohol labelling, packaging and promotion in the UK) issued best practice guidance containing responsible marketing principles for producers of alcohol alternative products. Whilst the Portman Group’s regulatory remit does not extend to alcohol alternative products, this guidance, though non-enforceable, is intended to provide support for the industry.  The approach taken is broadly similar to that adopted by CAP and the ASA guidance, but (in-keeping with the Group’s wider role) the Group’s guidance extends not just to marketing materials, but also to packaging and broader promotional activities for alcohol alternatives. 

What next

While there has not yet been much enforcement action in relation to alcohol alternatives in the UK, the usual pattern is that the UK regulators will first update rules and guidance, and then will then proceed to investigate cases and make rulings in the area.  Manufacturers and retailers of alcohol alternatives should therefore be mindful that advertising of such products is now subject to stricter rules than before; but the new guidance should at least help such companies understand the requirements imposed on them. 

Tags

advertisinglaw, asa, portmangroup, alcohol, food and beverage, consumer goods food and retail