The Portman Group. For Better or Worse?

The Portman Group.

For Better or Worse?

“The Portman Group is the responsibility body for UK drinks producers. We regulate the promotion and packaging of alcoholic drinks sold or marketed in the UK; challenge and encourage the industry to market its products responsibly; and lead on best practice in corporate alcohol social responsibility.”

This body is responsible for many serious reports to the Select Health Committee for Parliament.

Recently The Portman group made a statement about Easy IPA by Flying Dog Brewery. Yes one person, made a single complaint earlier in the year to The Portman Group, who are an “Independent and self-regulatory” body, that oversee alcohol marketing, promote responsible drinking and prevent misuse of alcohol.

The Portman Group is made up of:
Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands
Molson Coors
Pernod Ricard

So the market leaders in the alcohol business are now in charge of making sure everyone plays by the rules the want to outline. They’ve made some huge mistakes in their own marketing past. Encouraging underage drinking, literally telling you “Guinness is good for you”, you name it they’ve done it. You could say that the conscience of these companies got the better of them and they created the group, after years of mistakes.

I get it and for those who are a fan of the Cornetto Trilogy, “For the greater good” “The greater good”. But how can one complaint force such an enforcement. Not long ago Tiny Rebel faced the brunt of The Portman Group because they have a hung and drawn out teddy bear on their label. Or at least they did. Tiny Rebel, the brand name was to be minimised as to what it was previously… (Yes the name of the brewery that had been around for years)

The last time I saw any of the products of the founding members sold in a supermarket, they had a big sign on them telling me they were on offer. and they were at the end of an aisle, or as you walked in. Either way they were in my face. They weren’t sold individually either, they were in a case of 12/15/20/24. Is that responsibility? Craft beer is generally on the whole marketed as individual small pack items.

Just because they think they are being responsible, the real mis-use of alcohol is merely price dependant. People mis-using aren’t attracted to a beer because it’s £3 a can, at some point common sense has to take place. If the mis-use is a huge issue, it is because of the cheapest option of choice, and unfortunately for The Portman Group this is their founding members market.

So the latest over the last few days is that Flying Dog’s Easy IPA is under scrutiny, The Portman Group is a UK based group is issuing a Retailer Alert Bulletin on October 15th which will ask retailers not to place orders for this beer. This beer is stocked in most major supermarkets. The complaint said that the beer “…directly or indirectly encourages illegal, irresponsible or immoderate consumption, such as binge drinking, drunkenness or drunk-driving.”


The ONE, yes ONE complaint was followed up by The Portman Group. The complaint read

“‘I feel that the packaging of this beer, appeals to persons under the age of 18. When offered a drink from a friends [sic] fridge I immediately presumed that this was a soft drink’”

First of all, I have never invited someone around to my house and offered to get them a drink with them having no idea what it was. Imagine your friend asked you if you want a “brew” and to your utterly British horror you actually got a milky coffee instead of a mahogany tea. Admittedly if you’re that British you’d sit and drink it, but tea is about as far as we’d push it. Never has anyone offered me a beer and I thought it was a soft drink. My friends are just that, my friends. They’ll say do you want a beer, or do you want something else.

The fact that this complaint didn’t even occur in a shop. It occurred in a house. A “Friend’s” house. Unbelievable. The only mis-trust that happens is your friend obviously wanted you to loosen up….. and the fact you complained about it, we agree with them.

So The Portman Group take every complaint seriously. I mean really seriously. They dismissed the initial complaint but they decided to internally investigate the label. They then deemed that “…directly or indirectly encourages illegal, irresponsible or immoderate consumption, such as binge drinking, drunkenness or drunk-driving.”

Okay, the label has a representation to an American Sobriety test. Y’know stand on one leg, hold your arms out and spell the alphabet. Admittedly the yanks now have these things called breathalysers, that are well, more accurate. So the artwork is already pointing to the fact it’s booze.

The fact that the words “Easy” and “Session” were highlighted as problematic, it appreciated that the in the industry were common place. The fact that The Portman group referenced the “creature” on the front of the can means that it simply isn’t relatable. I’ve never called myself a creature. (And I’ve called myself some names!)

So what do The Portman Group really do, they act on a couple of complaints a year. They have had a say on 5 complaints this year.

They hold their heads up high because they are having a “positive” effect on the industry. The thing that gets me, is the hypocrisy. The founding members advertise, everywhere. Lets look at some of the brands and you can tell me if they ring any bells.

Stella Artois
Coors Light
Jacob’s Creek

Do you think you’d have heard of these brands as much if they weren’t advertised on tele, in newspapers, magazines, billboards etc. You didn’t ask to see these adverts, they weren’t plucked out your friends fridge, they weren’t put on your TV to make you want another brew, you weren’t in a beer shop or down the beer aisle in the supermarket. They literally disrupted you in what you were doing to encourage you to drink a beer.

If you could actually find the figures for people that visit after watching the advert and compare it with people who actually purchased that product. I’m fairly sure that the figure would be less than 1%.

To purchase alcohol you need to be 18. To watch TV you don’t, to read magazines you don’t, to see a billboard in a high street you don’t, admittedly to walk down a beer aisle you don’t. But are you attracted to a beer because you saw it once or are you attracted to a beer brand because it’s shoved down your throat, everyday, regardless of age.

This is something that isn’t given a thought. Why would it be, these people make millions a year by ensuring you’re marketed to. Because the ASA regulates Television, Radio, Press, Poster, Cinema, Direct Mail, Internet and Mobile Phones. So The Portman Group can tell you what they deem to be applicable and enforce labelling, but they don’t have to play by their own rules in their own marketing. (Let’s be honest their labels may re-enforce their brands but they aren’t exciting!)

In a world where brewer’s are pushing boundaries, showcasing artwork and generally shaping a stagnant market, why are they being criticised.

A cynic may allude to an Independent body made up of 8 members who control the majority of alcohol sales regulating what others can or can’t say is a bit like marking your own homework. There must be a conflict of interest for The Portman Group as a whole to impose sanctions on other people in the industry that they feel are breaching their own ethical guidelines. To say they are self regulated speaks volumes.

The industry needs regulation like any other, but are these self appointed members the best to be regulating it. Imagine a complaint being made because a child called Carl, thought that Carling appeal to him. Do you think that would be taken seriously…

To echo Tiny Rebel, the industry really is the only victim here.

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