The devil is in advertising

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SOUTH AFRICA’S Cabinet has rubber-stamped a draft Bill that will ban advertising of alcohol.

Sukoluhle Nyathi

The objective of the Bill is to reduce exposure to alcohol through advertising and promotion of the alcoholic brands. If South Africa adopts this new legislation, it will follow in the footsteps of countries like Russia which has banned alcohol advertising on television, radio, print media, the Internet, public transport and billboards.

This move has been necessitated by the harmful effects of alcohol on individuals, families, communities and the economy as a whole.

Alcohol has been linked to crimes, road carnage, domestic violence, sexual abuse and the decay of families and the fabric of society as a whole. Alcohol abuse has its fair share of problems, just like the abuse of drugs, sex and tobacco.

However, is banning advertising the solution to these ills? Advertising is a marketing technique aimed at communicating to an audience in order to encourage, persuade or manipulate to consume a product or service.

Several studies have been conducted which indicate that advertising does indeed influence behaviour. However, several studies have also been done which have tried to measure the effect of advertising on per capita consumption.

The results have been mixed, some indicating some increase others citing no effect. However, one would scrutinise the methodologies which have been subject to a lot of debate.

This is something I will leave to the data of someone’s doctorate thesis. My real concern here is that banning has never been the solution to anything. Even countries like Canada and Denmark which had alcohol advertising bans have repealed a lot of them.

History has demonstrated that bans don’t work. In America, during the period 1920-1933 prohibition of the sale of alcohol was introduced. This noble experiment gave rise to gangsterism, the most notorious being Al Capone.

This became an era known for crime, racketeering, corruption, bribery and unlawful speakeasies that offered alcohol for sale. Incidentally, it was the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing depression which led to repeal the ban on alcohol.

People were desperate for jobs and the alcohol industry provided that. Similarly the government needed tax revenue from alcohol sales.

Even then, just as it is now alcohol remains a crucial industry which contributes R7,42 billion to the gross domestic product of South Africa employing over 12 000 people.

The banning of alcohol advertising will result in job losses and revenue for various media organisations and publications, sponsorships and endorsements.

Of course proponents of banning advertising will argue that they have taken the middle road in that they haven’t actually banned the sale of alcohol but rather the advertising. Nonetheless the fact remains that alcohol will remain on shelves and those with access will continue to consume it. Alcohol is one of those things that sell itself.

The same applies to drugs. We all know that drugs are illegal, but we also are very well aware that there is a thriving illicit drug trade. No drug lords have sponsored television advertisements with tag lines like “Cocaine. Just Do it”, yet there are users who know exactly where to access their poison.

The results are that we have a serious drug problem which hasn’t been fuelled by advertisements yet we want to ban advertising on alcohol? Okay let’s take it further.

We have obesity, another rampant problem. So why don’t we go ahead and ban advertising of fast food? And while we are it ban all adverts with sexual connotations because they also promote promiscuity and unsafe sex practices. Just like alcohol, sex has also unleashed a rampant of ills on society like unwanted pregnancies and the HIV scourge.

So surely if we want to curtail this why not just ban adverts that promotes or encourage sex? By rushing to ban advertising we are just dealing with symptoms and not the underlying problem. So why not start educating instead?

The reason why HIV infection rates have dropped is because there has been a massive, systematic and sustained campaign on AIDS awareness. So why not start a massive public campaign against the evils of alcohol consumption?

The same way we have been taught that eating correctly and exercising will avert obesity and other health-related ills like diabetes, is the same way we should approach the issue of alcohol, drugs and sex.

People need to be educated so that they can make informed decisions. Knowledge is power.

We live in a world with a myriad of choices, some of which are harmful as opposed to beneficial. So let’s empower people to make the right decisions so that they act responsibly over their livelihoods.


 Sukoluhle Nyathi is the author of the novel The Polygamist. You can follow her on Twitter @SueNyathi