CSR as an instrument for framing alcohol-related problems: personal responsibility
The three alcohol corporations appeared to have devoted considerable resources to the framing of issues on alcohol consumption as part of their CSR initiatives. Some companies set up front groups or use PR companies alongside a number of other communications platforms to disseminate and propagate their commitments to what is called “responsible drinking”. For instance, in early 2012, Pernod Ricard chose APCO Worldwide to develop the implementation plan for the project on responsible drinking habits . APCO Worldwide is a public relations company that “helps clients anticipate what's next and smartly manage reputational, communication and business opportunities and challenges that affect their organizations, products, services or brands .” It is well known that APCO Worldwide has worked for companies in the tobacco industry, including British American Tobacco, Philip Morris and Brown and Williamson on issues related to the industry’s sponsorship of CSR . On 17 January 2012, on behalf of Pernod Ricard Asia, APCO Worldwide drafted a proposal on the implementation of public events on “Alcohol & Youth” with an effort to significantly “raise awareness on CSR and responsible drinking” and to heighten “external visibility .” Likewise, SABMiller created a dedicated website called Talking Alcohol in close collaboration with Drinkware Trust, a UK-based social aspect organization sponsored by the industry. The site provides views on alcohol in general as well as information about alcohol consumption.
At the centre of the responsible drinking initiative is the promotion of a core idea built on the alcohol industry’s corporate interest: the value of personal responsibility . It is important to note that the nature and causes of alcohol-related problems can be framed in widely different ways which can subsequently inform different response measures. In other words, a problem framed as a matter of personal responsibility can be addressed differently from one that is dues to other factors such as corporate misconduct or a social environment in which alcohol is consumed. Alcohol companies promote the view that alcohol confers benefits and pleasures, and that it should be thought of primarily as an aid to recreation and possibly as beneficial to health. For example, SABMiller’s CSR website states that “our beer adds to the enjoyment of life for the overwhelming majority of consumers….alcohol may provide physical benefits for some people when consumed in moderation .” [emphasis added] It typically follows an assertion that alcohol manufacturers simply provide choices and pleasure, and do not promote the abuse of their product. The idea underpinning this argument is that reckless drinking of individual consumers is the root cause of alcohol-related problems. SABMiller’s CSR website suggests that:
Drinking alcohol is a
matter of individual judgment and accountability
. It’s been a part of social life and celebrations around the world for thousands of years. Drinking sensibly means you can enjoy yourself – and stay safe. [emphasis added]
Accordingly, the alcohol industry’s CSR rhetoric conveys the idea that maintaining a sense of individual responsibility is the key to preventing alcohol-related harms and therefore excessive or inappropriate consumption among certain individuals are to be blamed and controlled. For example, in its CSR document, Pernod Ricard states that:
Alcohol is enjoyed by many people around the world because of its relaxing properties, as an enhancer of sociability and as a complement to meals. Alcohol can also
create problems for individuals who drink it irresponsibly and in exces
s. [emphasis added]
Alcohol companies in general acknowledge the social harms associated with alcohol consumption such as crime, violence, homicide and drunk driving. But nevertheless, the industry’s rhetoric deliberately avoids attention to corporate sources of alcohol problems by targeting individual drinkers as deviant for harming others and violating rules. SABMiller comments in its position statements that:
We acknowledge that while alcohol does not cause violence
, some people who commit acts of violence might have also consumed alcohol. The relationship between alcohol consumption and violent behaviour is however extremely complex ….
those who choose to drink too much, to be violent, or both must be held fully accountable for their choices and actions. [emphasis added]
Note that the rhetoric on the private moral choices of drinkers and individual responsibility enables alcohol corporations to be selective about which areas of alcohol policies are to be adopted or eliminated. First of all, alcohol companies do not support the kind of across-the-board regulation, particularly those that seek to control overall alcohol consumption levels because such measures pose a serious threat to the industry’s profits. Instead, the industry employs a dissecting narrative which cuts across and targets different segments of the population. Alcohol companies contend that population-based measures alone are inadequate in tackling alcohol-related problems. On its CSR website, ICAP asserts that:
It [alcohol industry’s CSR] begins with the recognition that
one-size-fits-all solutions are generally not effective
. We [ICAP] have consistently seen evidence that such approaches are unrealistic and that the initiatives most effective in preventing and reducing alcohol-related harms are those
tailored to regional and local societies and cultures. [emphasis added]
SABMiller shares the view that “Different things work in different markets. So our efforts [on alcohol responsibility] are locally designed and run with help from local partners .” In essence, the industry narratives indicate that they do not support any measures that curb overall demand (and presumed consumption) through restrictions.
Second, since the alcohol industry claimed that problems are usually caused by misusers, namely a “higher risk group”, one should educate consumers on drinking responsibly. Alcohol companies are a strong proponent of alcohol education and campaigns which are portrayed as the most effective way of tackling alcohol-related harm. All three companies in this study have actively engaged in a variety of education programmes as part of their CSR strategies. For instance, AB InBev claims to have invested more than USD $300 million in awareness and education programmes for responsible drinking . Pernod Ricard announced that they have financed more than 50 projects on responsible drinking awareness as stated on its CSR website . Likewise, SABMiller claims to have invested USD $875 million toward the promotion of responsible drinking programmes . SABMiller stated that:
Our efforts will
continue to focus on education and awareness initiatives
, especially in developing countries, with a particular emphasis on at-risk young people and those affected by the harmful drinking of others, as emphasized by the WHO strategy. [emphasis added]
The alcohol companies’ CSR initiatives on the education of problem drinkers and young drinkers do not represent the whole story of the industry’s CSR tactics. More recent CSR initiatives show that the industry has attempted to highlight the role of parents as an agent responsible for young people’s drinking practices and access to alcohol. For example, Pernod Ricard launched parent education and awareness campaigns as part of the company’s underage drinking prevention programme. It claims that “Latest studies helped to shed light on the formative influence of parental attitude on the drinking habits of minors. The more a child feels permitted to drink, the more he or she risks developing an alcohol dependency .” The emphasis on parents in alcohol education of children tends to be consistent across alcohol companies. SABMiller implemented the Family Talk About Drinking programme aiming to encourage communication between parents and children . While strong parental ties may be crucial to encouraging children to make appropriate decisions about alcohol, there is a risk that such an emphasis can fundamentally shift the focus of responsibility from the industry’s corporate practice in aggressive alcohol marketing and promotion to parents (or adults) who raise young children.
The alcohol companies’ documents also illustrate that the alcohol industry’s CSR on education and public awareness tends to shift the provision of educational information from traditional school-based education and public campaigns to web-based sources and other communication channels such as mobile devices and social media with unprecedented sophistication, an approach regarded by public health experts as a powerful marketing tool for the industry to target youth and promote alcohol brands . For example, AB InBev created the Family Talk About Drinking Program on Facebook with 54,921 people liking the page as of December 2012 . SABMiller posted a wide range of video clips on responsible drinking and other related CSR activities on YouTube . Likewise, Pernod Ricard launched a Facebook platform entitled Here’s to Tomorrow: Accept Responsibility which was designed to stress parental responsibility in children’s alcohol initiation . While the policy implications of such activities require further scrutiny, alcohol companies’ CSR tactics have been thriving in framing how personal responsibility associated with alcohol consumption should be understood and communicated.
CSR as a form of preemptive corporate defense: voluntary regulation
In reviewing the alcohol corporations’ websites and documents, one of the dominant points of their CSR rhetoric is premised on the idea of “voluntarism”. We have observed that the alcohol companies support self-regulation and voluntary market initiatives, which are considered by the public health community as corporate tactics which the alcohol industry uses to preemptively protect business from future regulatory restrictions on their marketing and advertising freedom . The alcohol companies’ promotion of the voluntarist narrative is based on the assumption that the market will effectively resolve many pressing issues surrounding alcohol consumption and proposed solutions should then fit within market mechanisms. Focusing on self-disciplined regulation gives alcohol companies leeway to circumvent and counter unwanted government intrusion into their business profits. As the ICAP’s CSR website comments:
Government laws and regulations and industry self-regulation can complement each other; some form of co-regulation is becoming the norm around the world. This combination retains an overarching government authority but
helps avoid the unintended consequences of severe restrictions on marketing. [emphasis added]
Similarly, AB InBev stated on its website that its internal code seeks to avoid regulatory repercussions: “By adhering fully to this [voluntary] code, we protect our business from future regulatory restrictions to our current marketing and advertising freedom .” The argument that government regulation would hamper voluntary efforts of alcohol corporations to improve their behaviour is illogical but has been presented to further reinforce the ground for corporate voluntarism. ICAP insists that “self-regulation is a flexible instrument, but it can only truly flourish where the legislative framework gives it sufficient scope to do so .”
In their bid to oppose any legally binding measures, the three alcohol companies have launched high profile events on self-regulation. One of such efforts was to publicize the training of industry employees and other stakeholders in the alcohol-related industries as proxies. For example, in May 2011, Pernod Ricard launched a Responsib’ALL Day programme by rallying the company’s staff members across the regions . In its 2011 annual report, it stated that
Our employees are front-line ambassadors
. In order to encourage appropriation of this new platform [Responsib’ALL Day programme] and especially its adaptation to local contexts, we decided to involve them
through a cascading training programme
. By May 2011, more than 15,000 employees have been trained in CSR. [emphasis added]
Similarly since 2010, AB InBev launched Global Be(er) Responsible Day to encourage its employees to talk to retailers and consumers about responsible drinking . It states that “we support programs that help educate bar and wait staff on how to serve and sell responsibly .” In its 2012 press release, the company claimed that it aims to train a total of 1 million people who serve and sell alcohol by the end of 2014 . SABMiller stated on its website that more than 50,000 employees had participated in training about alcohol responsibility and the company’s policies as part of the company’s responsible drinking campaign .
The alcohol industry’s voluntarist narrative has also yielded publications of a series of “code of conduct” documents for marketing and advertisements. Voluntary codes of conduct are in-house policies directed to employees in the form of broad statements or more specific but fairly minimal rules, which usually include statements of support for national industry codes of alcohol advertising standards, establishment of internal marketing review committees and systems of self-regulation. Our data shows that guidelines are remarkably similar across different alcohol corporations. For example, SABMiller published Responsible Drinking Messages in Packaging and Advertising in April 2012 . Pernod Ricard also issued the Pernod Ricard Code of Commercial Communications in June 2012 . Likewise, AB InBev published the Anheuser-Busch InBev Code of Business Conduct in August 2011 .
All these documents have one commonality: they stress that their advertisements are not targeted at young people below the legal drinking age and that they do not encourage excessive or irresponsible drinking. In contrast to the widely accepted view among public health advocates, the industry has underplayed the impact of alcohol marketing on youths’ decisions to drink: “To our knowledge, studies indicate that advertising has a negligible if any influence on underage drinking .” The documents related to the three alcohol companies’ codes of conduct also state that their voluntary codes are externally monitored and regulated. Our closer investigation, however, shows that there is limited independent input and a lack of comprehensive enforcement, leaving important areas under-regulated. For example, SABMiller’s self-regulated packaging and marketing communication materials are assessed by Ebiquity and KPMG, both of which turn out to be private marketing and industry consultant companies while those of Pernod Ricard and AB InBev are monitored by the companies themselves through so-called internal control committees. This suggests that there is little transparency and almost no third party control and sanctions behind the veil of the alcohol companies’ skillfully formulated ethical rules. The sole reliance on self-regulation and lack of public accountability mean that the alcohol industry’s voluntarist narratives are designed to avoid effective alcohol policies.
CSR as brand marketing and promotion: corporate philanthropy
Corporate philanthropy is another mechanism utilized by alcohol companies as part of their good corporate citizenship activities. The alcohol industry’s engagement in a broad spectrum of philanthropic activities is well described in each alcohol corporation’s website mainly under the theme of sustainable development and humanitarian endeavours.
In reviewing the industry materials, we have found that corporate philanthropy activities of the alcohol companies are characterized by two aspects: social outreach and sponsorship of the arts and cultural events. Social outreach encompasses activities from disaster relief charity work and sponsorships to underserved communities such as hunger and poverty charities to environmental sustainability initiatives including reduction of water use and carbon emission. From the viewpoint of the alcohol industry, corporate philanthropy is not just a strategy for brand promotion but is a tactic to enter, supply and develop local markets. Recent evidence suggests that global alcohol corporations’ philanthropic activities tend to target emerging economies with large youth populations . Fast growing markets for alcohol consumption have become popular destinations for alcohol companies to demonstrate their corporate philanthropy.
A typical example is the One Rupee Fund that Pernod Ricard launched for vaccinations and health education in rural India in 2011 . Similarly, AB InBev claimed to have donated USD $38,000 to sponsor children of migrant workers in China in 2010 . Intriguingly, behind their philanthropic activities, one can see the alcohol companies’ intentions for growth in these emerging markets. In its annual report, Pernod Ricard noted that “Growth was remarkable in the two key markets of China and India. China led the way, growing of 14% by volume in the wake of strong demand for ultra-premium brands… India grew 25% .” AB InBev also stated that “Our revenue growth was driven primarily by higher volume in Brazil, Argentina and China… Anheuser-Busch InBev has a foot firmly planted in the Chinese market, the largest potential growth pool for the beer industry .” On the other end of the spectrum, SABMiller claimed that it pledged USD $34 million in 2012 in community projects primarily focusing on the creation of sustainable economic opportunities for small entrepreneurs in several developing countries . Despite the company’s seemingly altruistic contribution, one can observe a profit-oriented business motive behind its efforts in corporate philanthropy. Statements from Christine Thompson, the policies issues manager of SABMiller plc, indicate that the alcohol company’s small entrepreneur initiatives are not simply driven by benevolent intentions but are also an active attempt to increase corporate domination and opportunity:
The business objectives for engaging with small-scale farmers have differed from region to region, ranging from strengthening government relations to securing future input supplies… In Uganda and Zambia, smallholder sourcing was central to the launch of a new brand, Eagle Lager, which was only made possible due to special excise reductions agreed with government. In India, the main business driver was to ensure the quality and security of agricultural supply needed to meet rapidly growing demand for SABMiller’s products nationally. In Tanzania, the business benefits were seen as securing the supply of quality barley in the face of uncertain commodity prices and supply, and generating savings of excise tax through import substitution.
The statement above reinforces the criticism that the philanthropic charity work done by the industry has underlying economic motives rather than an altruistic drive towards sustainable development.
Sponsorship of the arts and cultural events is another form of the CSR activities of the alcohol companies. In particular, the wine industry appears to have actively engaged in this type of sponsorship given that wine is claimed to be symbolically associated with culture, art and sophistication. Sponsorship of the arts usually takes place either in the form of endowments and scholarships/awards to young artists or funding to highly publicized cultural events. Pernod Ricard, one of the major players in the global wine market, is seen as an active patron of the arts. In exercising corporate philanthropy, brand name attachment to events was found to be a common corporate tactic. Havana Cultura, an annual international cultural event sponsored by Pernod Ricard, illustrates this point . Another industry practice is to exploit popular cultural events as a vehicle to foster advertising and marketing of alcoholic products. Such cultural patronage undoubtedly attracts the attention of the youth population and links alcohol company’s respective brands to the events.
Pernod Ricard states that its sponsorship of daily concerts of the greatest DJs in Thailand held in 2011 was “given full 360° media support with 13,500 new fans on Facebook and 13 million hits on search engines .” Similarly, the company’s sponsorship of a youth talent competition in the arts and entertainment in Poland, namely the ABOSULUT initiative, garnered “400,000 visitors” on its website . In a media saturated environment, alcohol companies are seeking to find more innovative ways to promote brand marketing, and CSR offers various effective avenues. Corporate philanthropy is sometimes designed with the intention of promoting alcohol brands. There appears to be an increasingly high level of expenditure worldwide on sponsorship as an important form of CSR.