The alcohol watchdog stated that three of the five cases that came before the Independent Complaints Panel last year were about the use of nostalgia-based designs, with complainants concerned that references to retro sweets, clothes and cartoons could have particular appeal to children. In two of these cases, the complaints were upheld.
One brewer and operator to have had a complaint made against it for its packaging design was Wales-based Tiny Rebel.
The complaint alleged that the packaging of the brewer’s Cwtch Welsh Red Ale (in a 330ml can) and design, which featured a cartoon bear and a graffiti typeface, appealed to under-18s and 'encouraged immoderate consumption'.
The complainant, a member of the public, said the beer looked like “a can of fizzy pop” and argued the drink “appears to be aimed at kids”.
In response, Tiny Rebel said its marketing was aimed at no one group in particular, and argued that there were several clues on the packaging to clearly indicate the product was alcoholic.
The brewery pointed out the words 'Welsh Red Ale' featured prominently on the can, and the alcoholic strength of the drink was clearly conveyed.
It also emphasised the use of 330ml cans was not a new innovation in the beer industry, and that the Tiny Rebel bear was a manifestation of the two co-founders’ personalities and a broader reflection of the industrial, urban city of Newport where the beer hailed from, and not designed to appeal to under-18s.
The Independent Complaints Panel chair Jenny Watson urged marketers to be careful when using retro designs, which appealed to an adult’s “inner child because they may inadvertently also appeal to children today”.
As well as handling complaints, the Portman Group aims to take proactive steps to help marketers stay on the right side of alcohol marketing rules through free training and advice.
Last year was the fourth busiest year for the advisory service since 2012, with almost 500 requests received.
The majority of enquiries related to packaging, with a higher proportion of requests following the publication in September last year of new best practice guidance on communicating alcohol and health-related information.
This year has also seen a rise in the amount of training given to marketers to keep them up to date with rules and guidance in the industry, with 621 people taking part in training online and face to face.
The majority of complaints received following the new rules were concerned with the particular appeal to under-18s, and whether the alcoholic nature of the drink was communicated with clarity.
The Portman Group is currently updating its code of practice, with the consultation running until 6 July.
Portman Group CEO John Timothy said: “Marketing rules aren’t there to stifle innovation but to protect vulnerable consumers and drive up standards.
“If in doubt, we are here to offer free and fast advice on any packaging and labelling queries. A large part of our work focuses on giving producers advice and guidance to prevent problems occurring.
“We play an important role within a functioning and effective alcohol market and we are constantly making sure our rules stay updated and relevant.
“That is why we are currently consulting on our code of practice and asking for views from across the industry and wider stakeholders.”