Heineken: ‘can’ your ‘National Take a beer to work’ day!

On Friday 27 August, Heineken plans to hand out free zero alcohol ‘beer’ to the public as part of the championing of their ‘National Take a beer to work’ day in South Africa, a day that they themselves invented and launched here in 2019, cynically appropriating patriotism to shape drinking culture. Heineken undertook a similar campaign in the US in 2019, as did Carlton Beer in Australia. However, according to Wim van Dalen of the European Centre for Monitoring Alcohol Marketing (EUCAM), Heineken is unlikely to launch such a campaign in the Netherlands, the company’s home country, as it would not be welcomed by the Dutch government or the public.

The Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance in SA (SAAPA SA) is of the view that this is nothing more than Heineken promoting its alcoholic drinks through the dubious ‘creation’ of a ‘national day’ that foregrounds their non-alcoholic products and therefore their overall brand. Heineken says it is promoting the campaign as meeting the needs of those who want ‘a cold one at work’. In other words, they are using non-alcoholic ‘beer’ to encourage consumers to drink their products in non-beer environments until they are in places where they can drink their alcoholic beers. They reinforce the connection between the two in the phrasing of their call: ‘Take a beer to work’, not ‘Take a non-alcoholic beer to work’. 

Apart from the problematic messaging, we could actually be seeing people taking alcoholic beers ‘to work’, perhaps even disguising the fact by decanting alcoholic beer into non-alcoholic bottles. After all, they smell pretty much the same, so who would be able to tell the difference?

Alcohol producers have notices on their non-alcoholic beverages saying they are not for people under 18. Are they intending to ask people for their IDs when they hand them out on Friday? In the case of motorists, are they going to assume that, because someone is driving a car, they must be 18 or older? A 17 year-old can get a learner’s licence and drive a car; a 17 year-old can ride a motorbike (presumably those handing out the beers aren’t going to discriminate against motorcyclists?). And, of course, there are youngsters below 18 who break the law by driving without a licence.

We need the authorities to answer an urgent question: is it legal to hand our free ‘beers’ to random people, even if they are non-alcoholic? Is this an appropriate thing to do with a product whose distribution and use is controlled by law? Why are non-alcoholic beverages restricted to people over 18 if they are not considered a risk? We need answers quickly, given that this ‘event’ is due to take place in two days’ time. 

SAAPA SA is not opposed to the idea of non-alcoholic drinks. They are an acceptable alternative to sugary soft drinks and tea and coffee. But we believe that, because of the problem of association with their alcoholic versions, they should be branded completely differently to break that connection. We also believe that the use of the word ‘beer’ (or wine or gin) should not be allowed for non-alcoholic products. Nor should companies be allowed to promote non-alcoholic beverages with ‘innocent’ names such as ‘sport’ beer, something that has already occurred in the Netherlands. Indeed, the need for regulation of their branding and marketing has already been recognised by the authorities.

These issues are particularly important when considering the impact on children. They have no way of distinguishing between the two products and understanding why the one is ‘okay’, but the other isn’t. Having them looking very similar, with the same brand name and both called ‘beer’, is simply going to confuse them and contribute to ‘normalising’ alcohol in their minds, thereby ‘grooming’ them to begin drinking later on. In the Netherlands, these complications have led to calls for people not to drink non-alcoholic beer in the presence of children at all.

Non-alcoholic beers have their place. But they mustn’t be used as a back-door way to promote alcoholic products. Nor must they be marketed as a ‘substitute’ for alcoholic drinks. Studies have shown that people are more likely to use non-alcoholic drinks as an alternative to sugary soft-drinks than to alcoholic drinks, except in exceptional circumstances where they absolutely cannot drink an alcoholic product. They are definitely not viewed as an alternative to alcohol by those who have an alcohol dependency. 

We already have challenges with the use of alcohol in the country. We don’t need manipulative advertising strategies using non-alcoholic drinks muddying the waters. We definitely don’t need a ‘National Take a beer to work’ day which promotes the idea that people want ‘a cold one’ anywhere, anytime, and encourages the use of non-alcoholic beers as a temporary solution in a ‘non-beer’ environment. 

SAAPA SA calls on Heineken to be ‘aware’ of the inappropriateness of their made-up day and to ‘behave responsibly’ and ‘can’ it. The country doesn’t need it, no-one asked for it, it won’t be missed if it doesn’t happen.

For further information please contact
SAAPA SA Communication Head Terri-Liza Fortein Email: terriliza300@gmail.com Cell: 0799765489
Maurice Smithers, Director, SAAPA SA   Email:saapa.southafrica@gmail.com Cell: 082 373 7705