In Arthur’s Day, says Michael Lanigan, Guinness have pulled off a coup that changes the advertising game, showing that culture creates cash.
Having moved up to Dublin in 2011, Arthur’s Day was already on its third outing and seldom had I devoted a modicum of attention to its wider significance until, seated around a table, I heard these men from the agency opining on the topic with such vitriol and reverence. They were in awe of Guinness’ coup.
Arthur’s Day is the Holy Grail of marketing. Having been pulled off so well initially, its strongest point now is its longevity; hypothetically, it’s going to go on forever. While other brands struggle to overcome the increasing demands of the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland, the bane of every ad man’s existence, the Guinness copywriters played the culture card, and now have a recurring aid to fall back on every year, stretching forward indefinitely. The world of advertising is an ephemeral one to say the least, and within that world the Irish alcoholic accounts appear to be facing their final days due to the aforementioned ASAI, as has been the case with the tobacco industry. Without schemes to ingrain promotion within a deeper setting, the only product with a seemingly perennial guarantee is Guinness.
Even with this boost, the stout’s current state in the developed world is uncertain, dropping 10% in net sales over the past four years. Western Europe has seen a particularly unsettling slip for Diageo, but emerging markets such as Nigeria and Indonesia have claimed that 10% in the same timeframe.
The downturn is partly due to the bans on sports sponsorship in France and Norway, which are proving detrimental to sales. While Ireland struggles to debate whether to persevere with enforcing similar legislations, Nigeria has been able to use the sponsorship for tie-in promotional football matches, increasing its popularity by 18%. Britain’s choice to reduce promotional activity has caused net sales to drop by 2%, while Ireland and Southern Europe’s situation worsens with an 11% fall.
The topic of alcoholic sponsorship and sporting events is a highly debated one in Ireland today. A group of Ministers and health advisors have brought the subject before the Dáil with aims of phasing out such advertising by 2020. The men leading the campaign are Conor Cullen from Alcohol Action, the Minister for Health James Reilly, TD Alex White and Bobby Smyth, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist. Their intention of preventing underage exposure is understandable, however men such as Smyth scaremonger by preaching of a dystopian Ireland: “With 72,000 babies born each year, our country now functions as a conveyor belt producing very heavy drinkers, each of whom generates great profits for the alcohol industry.”
To combat this “conveyor belt”, the ASAI continuously tighten the rules governing ads promoting alcohol. The draconian changes can be tracked by anyone with a strong archival memory for Guinness adverts over the past decade, some of which would never pass the Alcoholic Marketing, Communications and Sponsorship Codes of Practice of today.
Guinness’ Believe Campaign from 2002 saw Joseph Mawle (or Benjen from Game of Thrones) play a weary hallucinating hurler, preparing to take a vital game-seizing puck from the 65 meter line, dreaming of that post-match pint, the true ‘hero’s welcome’. ASAI regulations would today forbid any implied success in the context of a pint (Section 7.4 (b)), nor should it appear to improve physical performance (Sec. 7.4). The major concern, however, is a fictitious hurler, whose honourable character might appeal to children. The mighty censors must strike down such glorification with an infallible fist in accordance to the doctrine of Section 7.6 (c).
“The topic of alcoholic sponsorship and sporting events is a highly debated one in Ireland today. A group of Ministers and health advisors have brought the subject before the Dáil with aims of phasing out such advertising by 2020. The men leading the campaign are Conor Cullen from Alcohol Action, the Minister for Health James Reilly, TD Alex White and Bobby Smyth, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist. Their intention of preventing underage exposure is understandable, however men such as Smyth scaremonger by preaching of a dystopian Ireland: “With 72,000 babies born each year, our country now functions as a conveyor belt producing very heavy drinkers, each of whom generates great profits for the alcohol industry.”
Current regulations state that any advertisement for such products (drink essentially) must not appear outside the viewing hours of 6PM and 11PM, only surfacing during broadcasts with an adult viewership demographic of no less than 75%. How this depraved commercial once appeared during a ratings peak in the early afternoon and also cropped up on the big screens in Croke Park would baffle any newcomer to the land of ads. If this advert appeared after January 1, 2007, when the act emerged, the notepad itself would probably refuse to register the words jotted down, now seemingly so subversive.
In 2006, we had No Wonder the Guinness Is Great aka the ‘Do You Know the Way to San Jose?’ ad. A van driver delivers Guinness to small pubs across Ireland’s “back and beyond”. Operating his vehicle with carefree charm, he touches down in an empty bar where a pint sits ambiguously on the counter, within the driver’s grasp. Even without showing our hero consuming the stout, 7.7 (g) would worry as to whether this man was operating machinery under the influence, including briefly a boat (“any activity relating to water”). The only argument that might possibly save the ad would be that at least in 2006, our hero might not have exceeded the legal driving limits. Though it should be noted that referencing a character’s failure to exceed blood-alcohol limitations is still not an acceptable small text disclaimer. No doubt, to an outsider, such minor details seem absurdly over-analytical, but many censors regard this as certain corruption, encouraging unruly antics. Alcohol Action has denounced the Irish media for the manner in which it has “groomed” children, calling upon the latest legislations as insufficient efforts to protect a nation so prone to the vice of the drink.
Whether their voice is overly cautious maintaining that sponsors prey on vulnerable spectators, take note that even former GAA President, Dr. Michael Loftus (1985-8), has criticised the unfettered exposure of Diageo in the sporting world. Such corporations, despite the necessary regulatory demands, still have a stunning ubiquity in areas of healthy activity, but an outright ban is naïve, considering that alternative advertisers, who can pay the necessary fees, have to be found.
Outside of the sporting world, in terms of flogging its product in Ireland, Guinness has two current directions used to avoid the ASAI’s ever-sharpening blade, besides our nation’s premier tourist trap, The Guinness Storehouse. The first is the “Surge” campaign, a multi-million campaign to teach drinkers how to pull the perfect pint, otherwise known as “quality credentials”.
The second promotion is of course Arthur’s Day. By advertising via educational techniques and a pseudo-cultural day of celebration, Guinness’ campaigns leave the confines of media ethics and enter the world of the everyman. Whether we arrange to go out Arthur’s Day with friends, or our local barman engages with us about pouring a pint, Guinness’ campaigns are at work, just latching on to a more comfortable medium to swallow. Alcohol Action can do very little to prevent children from hearing simple discussion, or those crass “To Arthur” toasts, even if regulations move into forbidding music events from being tie-in promotions.
With the last Thursday in September entering its fifth year, the king of commercial celebratory days seems destined to enter our calendar as an apparent nod towards our heritage. We are to see it as an opportunity to celebrate Irish stout and the man that loved it so, rather than it being a day of Irish culture supporting a British owned company, who ceased activities in their Waterford, Kilkenny and Dundalk breweries to euphemistically “centralize production” in Dublin.
Arthur’s day is there to sell Guinness, but no more than St Patrick’s Day or Christmas were created to sell Christianity. Diageo know that while the law can limit the media, tradition (and especially the Irish drinking tradition) cannot be censored as easily.