Key intersections and busy roads in several hubs in Johannesburg were repurposed as non-alcoholic beer drive-throughs or pickup points.
Indeed, we experienced three lanes of Katherine Street — a high-congestion road — being closed. And we were forcibly directed through a currently non-functional Rea Vaya bus stop — repurposed as a beer drive-through.
In other words, we were forced to participate in Heineken’s campaign, even if we didn’t want to.
Why didn’t we want to participate?
It is no secret that alcohol consumption is bad for public health.
During Covid-19, we have seen firsthand the burdens that alcohol places on the healthcare system, and how these are significantly reduced through limiting sales of alcohol. There is also a clear link between alcohol consumption and gender-based violence, making the promotion of alcohol during Women’s Month particularly disturbing.
A big contributor to these alcohol-related harms is the fact that heavy alcohol consumption is not just prevalent, but a normalised part of South African culture. For example, research shows that 59% of South African drinkers engage in harmful binge-drinking.
The Heineken “Take a Beer to Work Day” campaign isn’t about encouraging the consumption of non-alcoholic beers. Instead, it is about encouraging the idea that people want to drink beer all day, but don’t because they can’t consume alcohol at work. Through a “non-alcoholic beer”, consumers can now choose to drink a non-alcoholic variety until they can have the “real thing”. It is further normalising alcohol and promoting the idea that it’s okay to want to drink beer all day.
Heineken is also using the promotion of their non-alcoholic products to promote their overall brand, which includes their alcoholic products. The branding of the non-alcoholic beer is indistinguishable from the alcoholic version.
The fact that many of the activation sites were near schools or at commuting hubs means it is highly likely that children were exposed to this campaign as much as adults. This creates further confusion in the minds of underage people who can’t necessarily understand the difference between the two products, especially because they have the same name, their labels are very similar and they’re both called beer.
Some may argue that promoting a non-alcoholic beer may actually reduce consumption of alcohol and thus reduce associated harms. This isn’t the case as Heineken’s campaign is not encouraging people to limit their desire for drinking to specific times, to consume less or to use alcohol safely, but instead to consume alcohol and alcohol-related products all day in any context. We have seen the same tactics being used by the tobacco industry, which promotes vaping to younger consumers to get them addicted to tobacco and smoking.
Overall, this campaign is just another way to normalise excessive consumption of alcohol and to harm public health.
Is ambush advertising allowed?
It could be illegal to hand out free bottles of beer (alcoholic or not) to random members of the public.
The status of even alcoholic beer in South Africa is largely unregulated, with the alcohol industry indicating that it will undertake self-regulation and ensure that its products are consumed responsibly. We believe the Heineken campaign is a clear example of why this type of self-regulation doesn’t work — companies will always prioritise their profits over public health.
Even with the status of advertising beer products being a bit murky, it is certainly illegal to divert traffic or to close road lanes without the permission of the local government. This means that either Heineken was forcing commuters to drive through their campaign illegally or, even more troubling, they had permission to do this from government. In addition to the traffic disruptions, publicly funded infrastructure in the form of bus stops were rebranded to promote Heineken products.
The rebranding, coupled with the traffic diversions, is something that requires permission through two different by-laws, namely the Outdoor Advertising By-Law of 2018 and the Public Road and Miscellaneous By-Law of 2004.
The process for approving outdoor advertising like this requires that the City of Johannesburg runs a public participation process, as well as consideration of the potential danger to motorists and pedestrians — something that should have been taken seriously, given the substantial disruptions to traffic caused by the campaign. The fact that the campaign also obstructed at least one public road means that Heineken needed municipal approval for interfering with traffic control.
Although we are unclear about whether Heineken did obtain these permissions, we can confirm that we didn’t see any Johannesburg Metro Police Department presence at the distribution sites. We can also confirm that traffic was severely disrupted at these sites, including lane closures. Beyond that, people driving while holding “beer” bottles is dangerous and can cause accidents — really begging the question of how this could have been allowed under the current bylaws?
If Heineken did obtain the permits needed to run this campaign, it means that several government officials not only signed off on it, but didn’t feel it necessary to monitor the campaign in any way — leaving Heineken free to redirect traffic as it pleased and forcing anyone driving to work to participate in this campaign.
If Heineken did get permission from the City of Johannesburg, we question why the government would allow a private company to seriously disrupt local infrastructure for commercial gain. This question could even be the basis for arguing that any permission from the city was illegally given.
We didn’t want to “take a beer to work” on Friday or any day of the week, but we didn’t really get a choice about whether we wanted to participate.
This campaign illustrates how a private company was able to reshape the roads to further their profits — all the while compromising the public’s health and wellbeing. It is clear that much stricter laws and regulations are needed to keep alcohol companies in check and to combat the normalisation of and harm from heavy alcohol consumption in South Africa. DM/MC