New age of prohibition follows fermentation

There’s little evidence to suggest that under-age drinkers are buying “alcopops”, so is The Portman Group’s code of practice for its packaging really necessary? Clare Dowdy reports

The “full wrath of public opinion” is the threat being used by The Portman Group to enforce its new code of practice for the naming, packaging and merchandising of alcoholic drinks. The code has come about after the successive launches of “alcopop” drinks, which have been criticised as using imagery reported to encourage under-age drinking.

Several drinks companies have already changed their labelling in anticipation of the code, by ditching words which have traditional generic connotations with the soft drinks or confectionery market – “lemonade”, for example. Shott’s Alcoholic Seltzers from Whitbread, which only came on to the market a few weeks ago, was developed specifically with the introduction of the code in mind.

Silas Amos, a designer at Jones Knowles Ritchie, worked on the branding of Shott’s three varieties. “Shott’s did have a character on the label but we got rid of it because it could have been seen to be appealing to kids,” he says. The consultancy experimented with other characters but could not come up with an attractive design which would not be seen as attractive to children.

In the same way, the use of the words “Bomb” and “Blast” in the names were dropped “because they were seen as anti-social and aggressive”, Amos adds. They have been replaced with “Jag”, “Heist” and “Charge”.

The Portman Group acknowledges that “the introduction of fruit-flavoured alcoholic beverages has not increased the scale of under-age drinking”, and in fact under-age drinkers prefer beer and cider to “alcopops”. So is the new code just a cursory nod to a politically correct climate?

The Portman Group deputy director Dr John Browne says the code is in place to control the branding of all alcoholic drinks. But despite the clear wording of the code, which lays down specific rules for the placement and clarity of product descriptions to avoid the confusion which arose with the first “alcopops”, at least one brewer has no plans to make further changes to its brand.

Bass Brewer’s strong lemon character on its Hooper’s Hooch labelling, created by Apex in Edinburgh, will stay, and the brewer claims there is no evidence to suggest the labelling appeals to under-age drinkers.

Bass is currently test-marketing Aqua V, a soda-based alcoholic drink aimed at the sophisticated late-20s consumer. Design is by Design House and a decision on a general launch will be made in the next four weeks.

Moreover, designers like Amos at Jones Knowles Ritchie are questioning whether “changing the weight of a typeface saying ‘alcohol’ is going to make that much difference” to the overall brand perception.

George Riddiford, partner at Brewer Riddiford, says there is a place for labelling which spells out the fact that the product is alcoholic. Brewer Riddiford designed Sainsbury’s “alcopop” Pirhana. “It is responsible to make it look like an alcoholic drink. Commonsense should tell you that you should not make packaging innocuous.”

The enforcement of the code will be driven by complaints from the public. It is supported by drinks companies including Bass, Guinness and Whitbread as well as retailers Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Safeway. And individual alcohol producers and retailers are expected to sign up to the code in the coming weeks. Whether it actually has any effect will be seen as clients brief designers to create branding for more alcopop drinks for a market which is quickly becoming saturated.


The new Portman Group Code bans the use of soft drink or confectionery generic names such as “lemonade” on alcoholic products unless it is made absolutely clear, directly adjacent to the brand name, that the drink is alcoholic. There can be no confusion with soft drinks. The code also:

Bans the use of characters or imagery which have a predominant appeal to under-18s, and bans containers shaped in a way which might allude to anti-social behaviour.

Requires retailers to ensure alcohol is clearly differentiated in-store from non-alcoholic drinks, and to train staff on adhering to the law on the sale of alcohol to those under 18.

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