Tuesday 8 April 2014

David Beckham and Public Health

Yesterday, a story about alcohol got a fair bit of attention – David Beckham (and his manager Simon Fuller) are to promote a new whisky made by Diageo (when it’s actually launched later in the year).

Alcohol Concern were so agitated they put out a press release, and other groups like ‘It’s the drink talking’ complained about it on Twitter.

Initially, I was at a loss as to why this was an issue of concern – celebrity endorses alcoholic drink is hardly news (just look on http://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/).  My tweets on the issue were even favourited by Mark Baird from Diageo, though many people reading this won’t consider that an endorsement worth having.

But then John Holmes pointed out that this is about the association between alcohol and social and sporting success.  That sort of objection would make sense, as it’s against the ASA code.

So why was I initially annoyed?  Well, the actual objections I saw didn’t talk about sport or social success: they actually referred to David Beckham being healthy and appealing to children.

I don’t have the relevant marketing data, but the idea of David Beckham being used to market alcohol to children seems unlikely, given that he was at the height of his powers more than ten years ago – as the Diageo press release observes, he won the Champions’ League in 1999 and was runner-up for the FIFA player of the year award in 1999 and 2001.  Most ‘children’ won’t have any real memories of those seasons.

As for health promotion, this gets to the heart of the objection: there’s a belief that you can’t be healthy and drink, or that promotion of alcohol is necessarily incompatible with health objectives – which trump all else.

This is where the campaigners are on difficult ground.  Regardless of the ‘sick quitter’ hypothesis, it’s not generally felt that low levels of alcohol consumption make much difference to an individual’s health one way or the other (though they might have noticeable effects at a population level).

I’m also not convinced that David Beckham’s going to be fronting some campaign that promotes specifically high levels of alcohol consumption that would be incompatible with ‘a healthy lifestyle’, to use an awful phrase.  It’s more likely that the campaign will play on the sorts of themes his others have gone for in recent years: the impression of style, fashion and sophistication.

Of course we can argue about whether any campaign that makes alcohol seem sophisticated and respectable is a good thing, and whether the industry is sincerely promoting moderate consumption.

And that’s where the debate should be.  The objections aren’t to David Beckham promoting alcohol; they’re to alcohol being promoted.

This is why I was frustrated.  There’s nothing wrong with Alcohol Concern and other organisations objecting to alcohol advertising, particularly as alcohol is ‘no ordinary commodity’, and therefore needs special regulation.  My objection is that there’s nothing specifically wrong with David Beckham promoting alcohol.  I struggle to see even how he’s associated with sporting success at the moment.  He’ll be shown drinking the whisky a year after retiring, and more than 15 years after winning the Champions’ League; no-one watching is going to be thinking he’ll be up the next day winning the World Cup.

The point is that we should be having the argument that actually matters: should alcohol advertising be allowed, and if so, with what restrictions?  Then we can clearly ‘think to some purpose’ about the actual issue in hand.  Let’s not get distracted into thinking this is about whether David Beckham should be advertising whisky.  Knee-jerk responses just aren’t helpful in having a sensible debate.