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Helen Mitchell: Hard Solo outrage is warranted. This is not a harmless gimmick.

Aug 15, 2023

There’s a new entrant into the alcohol beverage market, and it has sparked what I consider to be justified outrage.

Solo – with its iconic tag that encourage us to ‘slam it down fast’ – has been joined by Hard Solo, a ready-to-drink mix of crushed lemon and vodka.

The Solo man has been the stalwart of this brand. He has run, jumped, wrestled and kayaked off a waterfall into our collective consciousness over many, many decades. We all know him.

He is man’s man who stands for strength, physicality and adventure – with just a hint of danger. And now he’s selling alcohol to our kids.

I can already hear the jeering and shouts about being a wowser, and saying it’s up to the parents to make sure the kids make good choices.

But let’s unpack this.

Asahi Beverages has taken an iconic Australian product and leveraged its long association with the outdoors and adventure to sell a new alcoholic product.

And make no mistake, Solo is iconic. It’s not just another lemonade or ginger beer. Solo is Solo. Just like Fanta, Sprite and Coke.

For those claiming we are blowing things out of proportion, I would ask them to pause and consider their reaction if Asahi had chosen to make an alcoholic version of Fanta.

This is not whimsical decision that Asahi Beverages have just taken. Product development takes years of consideration and market testing.

Asahi insists that Hard Solo is aimed at people between 25 to 50 years old, but we know that overall, the ready-to-drink (RTD) market is squarely aimed at the younger end of that age bracket, and much lower.

In June, multiple food and drink industry news sites breathlessly reported the findings of Roy Morgan’s Alcohol Consumption Report which showed RTD consumption is now at a record high in Australia.

The same report also demonstrated RTDs were most popular among 18- to 24-year-olds, followed by the 25- to 34-year-olds. More than half of people in these two age groups drink RTDs.

Knowing this, Asahi executives would have been absolutely asking themselves this question a few years ago: “Is there enough Solo brand recognition among the teenagers of today?”

Not only did they know that teenagers would be their future drinkers, they were absolutely banking on it.

I have long lamented the ubiquitous alcohol brand extension that is rife within our society. The t-shirts, the towels, the bucket hats, the eskies, the surfboard and the beach cricket sets with alcoholic brands plastered all over them.

We’re led to believe that these branded products are harmless gimmicks, that they are “just a bit of fun”. But they’re not.

The sole purpose of these products is to expose as wide an audience as possible to the brand, regardless of their age.

Now we have soft drinks being used to introduce alcohol to young people. You can imagine that if a young person is familiar with the taste of Solo (and honestly, who hasn’t slammed one down in their lifetime?) then the decision to try a Hard Solo is an easier one. They already know what it will taste like. They just don’t truly understand consequences of the other ingredient (vodka).

I wholeheartedly agree with the Cancer Council of WA, who lodged a complaint regarding Hard Solo with the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) Scheme.

Their complaint said the Hard Solo product breached the ABAC Code which is meant to prohibit alcoholic drinks from containing a “strong and evident appeal” to minors.

Unfortunately, the ABCA is a body set up and run by the alcohol industry. It is quite ludicrous that the alcohol industry – which sells a product linked to so much societal harm – is able to set its own advertising rules and codes.

Rules and codes which can be entirely ignored, because both are entirely voluntary.  They are a joke, if you are the umpire of your own game you will always win!.

Even if a company does ostensibly follow the code, and then breaches it, there are no absolutely now consequences.  Plus it’s too late as the product has been on the shelves long enough for the multimillion dollar campaign to have effectively increased brand awareness and convinced consumers to buy!

The result is an environment where alcohol companies can relentlessly target our young people, they can use their favourite soft drink to prime them to drink alcohol the second they turn 18.

There are now so many longitudinal studies that link young people’s exposure to alcohol advertising to the age they begin drinking. If they have already started drinking, alcohol advertising has been shown to influence the amount they drink.

We know the disastrous effect that excessive drinking has on young people, along with putting them at risk of accidents and injuries, it also damages their long-term emotional and mental health.

We need the Government to step in here.

There is a very recent and very obvious precedent for this. When the harms of tobacco and second-hand smoke became inescapable, State and Federal Governments acted to regulate and ultimately ban tobacco advertising and created strict packaging regulation and put them behind a counter and in plain packaging with graphic warning labels.  The same could happen with alcohol products.

While a ban on alcohol advertising may not be feasible, government-led regulation – backed by significant enforcement measures – certainly is.

I don’t have any hope that the Cancer Council WA complaint and others like it will result in any action by the ABCA, Asahi Beverages or the alcohol industry at large.

I do however hope that Hard Solo manages to irk enough people that we will see more pressure put on government to reign in the alcohol industry so they can no longer target our kids.

Our kids deserve our protection.

Article by Helen Mitchell, Chief Growth & Innovation Officer, Hope Community Services. Helen has a background in nursing and health promotion. She’s a passionate advocate for public health measures.

This article was first published in the Glen Innes Examiner on 14 August 2023.

HOPE offers Alcohol and Other Drugs support services throughout WA. Find out more here.

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