Hard Solo, an alcoholic version of the lemon-flavoured soft drink from Asahi-owned soft-drink company, Schweppes, raises questions about the risks beverages like it pose to minors. Public attention and renewed calls by anti-alcohol lobbyists for government regulation pose a threat to the alcohol beverage industry’s watchdog, ABAC.
Lipton Iced Tea, Monster, and Mountain Dew are readily available in ‘Hard’ versions. The trend of infusing well-known soft drinks and other beverages with alcohol is sweeping through the US and UK.
The success of Hard Seltzers like White Claw has spurred on the appearance of these drinks. According to a study from Grand View Research, the Hard Seltzer market is worth almost USD 19 billion and is expected to grow 19.8% annually from 2023 to 2030. Encouraged by this, soft drink makers like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, collectively known as ‘Big Soda’, saw an opportunity to leverage their own popular brands and categorise on the ‘hard’ beverages market.
Enter Hard Solo, a 4.5% ABV version of the popular Schweppes lemon-flavoured soft drink, remembered for its ‘Solo Man’ marketing campaign in the 80s. The beverage recently went on sale in Australian bottle shops.
Anti-alcohol lobbyists like FARE have wasted no time highlighting Hard Solo as a risk to minors. They believe the soft drink’s consumers are predominantly children and that marketing for the alcoholic version targets them.
Despite an overall decline in alcohol consumption among young adults in recent years, a fact some point to as the reason for anti-alc campaigner’s vocalism as they attempt to remain relevant, anti-alc campaigners have been consistently calling for a review of alcohol marketing standards and the body that governs it.
The crusade against alcoholic beverages that target minors is nothing new for anti-alc campaigners, but it rarely gets attention outside the alcoholic beverages industry.
But the nationally recognised Solo brand has brought the issue to the attention of mainstream media and politicians, notably Australia’s ‘Teal’ MPs on the crossbench, such as the independent member for North Sydney, Kylea Tink.
Among their concerns is the blurring of lines between products recognised as alcoholic and non-alcoholic. With many examples of traditional alcoholic products already on supermarket shelves in a non-alcoholic form, adding alcoholic versions of traditionally non-alcoholic drinks has raised questions about how far things have come and whether current regulations adequately consider this evolution.
The media coverage and public scrutiny culminated in the Western Australian Cancer Council submitting an official complaint to the Australian Beverage Advertising Code (ABAC), body set up and funded by the alcoholic beverages industry to felid complaints about alcohol marketing.
ABAC has long been a target of the anti-alcohol lobby. They believe there is a conflict of interest in the industry regulating itself and often cite a lack of punitive measures available to ABAC, labelling it a toothless tiger.
But the inner workings of ABAC are seldom mentioned. Whilst funded by the alcholic beverages industry, the body operates independently. The number of upheld complaints is on par with those dismissed and the industry has a high rate of compliance with ABAC’s adjudications. Almost 700 requests for pre-vetting were made to ABAC in the second quarter of 2023, a service the industry uses to test whether marketing adheres to the code.
Last year, ABAC reviewed the code, which involved consultation with industry and focus groups to ensure it accurately reflects community standards. The result is a more stringent set of rules, particularly in marketing to minors.
It’s important to note that in addition to producers, Australia’s major alcohol retailers are signatories to the code, meaning they will not stock products that have a complaint upheld by ABAC, regardless of whether the producer is a signatory.
Complaints to ABAC are anonymous. But many complaints have been reported to originate from the same anti-alcohol groups claiming ABAC does not work.
The problem with Hard Solo for ABAC and the alcoholic beverages industry
ABAC’s successes as a body for regulating alcohol marketing are already ignored by those seeking to supplant it. With the introduction of Hard Solo, critics have gained a wider audience for their unbalanced narrative around ABAC’s validity as a regulator.
Among Australian beer producers, there are mixed feelings about the criticisms directed at Hard Solo; some cite advertising campaigns for Solo where men are the apparent target, while others point to the marketing of Hard Solo on predominantly youth-populated platforms like TikTok. Despite this, there’s wide acceptance that the potential impact to ABAC is cause for concern.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, alcohol consumption is the lowest in over 50 years. In a study by the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, data showed that young Australians drinking ‘much less’ than previous generations.
Much like the recent successful campaign to change pregnancy labelling on alcohol products, many statistics are quoted by the anti-alc movement which illustrate the issue, but none which prove proposed changes will have any effect. What does change is the cost to producers when they’re forced to accept tighter regulation.
Schweppes has waved a red flag at a bull with Hard Solo. Marketing to minors is a subject anti-alcohol campaigners vehemently pursue and broader public sentiment to protect children often trumps facts and logic. The section of the ABAC code relating to alcohol marketing appealing to minors is the most frequently tested.
What’s notable from Kylea Tink’s interview on ABC radio was her assertion the industry would not see Hard Solo as a mistake, thus highlighting how alcohol producers are frequently tarred with the same brush.
Tink’s request for an open discussion on the subject it fair and reasonable. But her ant-alc lobby allies are little more than neo-prohibitionists. Thier masquerade as health researchers and educators allow them to present cherry-picked facts and statistics to an unwitting public to advance their agenda. The anti-alc narrative relies on a vivid picture of an industry where predatory marketing and unethical behaviour are virtues and pivots on dehumanising the people working there.
I can only speak of my observations of the craft beer industry, and while naivety might mean people overlook things from time to time, no one is blase about putting children at risk.
As someone who reviews ABAC adjudications more than I like to admit, the wider alcohol beverage industry is not without its bad actors. Overwhelmingly though, they are the exception.
Tighter regulation would impact everyone, including the genuine, hard-working, family-oriented, community-minded people run the craft brewing industry—people who are just as concerned about promoting healthy relationships with alcohol for themselves and their children as everyone else.
Too frequently, the industry is judged by its worst offenders. Our mainstream news feeds publicise those pushing the boundaries of acceptable marketing, producers who test the limits of regulators like ABAC rather than keeping a safe distance from them, and consumers displaying anti-social behaviour.
Questions have arisen from within the industry about whether breweries could do more to combat the image and distance themselves from products that skirt the line of acceptable marketing. Given where we’re at, perhaps this is all that’s left.
On top of all the reasons I’ve cited which suggest ABAC does work, the fact it occasionally raises ire from within the industry and attracts ignorant criticisms from consumers must be confirmation it’s doing the job it set out to.
But no matter ABACs ruling on the complaint, this is a lose-lose for the industry, particularly small producers.
Detractors will have more ammunition to target ABAC’s effectiveness if the complaint is dismissed. There’ll be renewed calls for government regulation, and the anti-alcohol lobby will undoubtedly have a seat at the table.
If the complaint is upheld, it undermines the pre-vetting process, with the added side effect of eroding confidence among those who use it.
Schweppes would have seen this coming. One wonders if an upheld complaint could even see them turn on ABAC and claim to be the victim of a failed system. “ABAC said it was ok”.
Solo’s yellow branding is fitting, as Hard Solo has become a canary in a cage to test Australia’s feelings towards ‘Hard’ beverages.