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In Norway, tropical cocktail emoji may be considered as advertising alcohol

In Norway, a strict ban on advertising alcohol also applies on social media. An emoji may be considered as promoting alcohol consumption, as consideration must be given to its purpose, reminds the minister of Health.

Tropical cocktail
Illustration | © Lisa Fotios

A Norwegian bar posted an invitation to a Christmas party that went up to the minister of Health. She was asked whether the tropical drink emoji 🍹 was actually advertising alcohol.

Bar-On is a bar and pizza restaurant in Rosendal, a village of 800 people in western Norway on the shore of Hardangerfjord, the second longest fjord in the country.

On December 12, the bar posted on its Facebook page a message reminding people about its upcoming Christmas party. Bonfire, grilled sausages, mulled wine, twist bread (pinnebrød), Christmas music, and even Santa at the party.

The post includes a few emojis, including, right after mentioning that Santa may come by with some surprises, the tropical drink emoji : “Maybe Santa will drop by with some goodies for people…🍹”. Few days earlier the bar also shared a picture with sensibly the same message but with the clinking beer mugs emoji 🍻. The restaurant manager has edited and deleted the emoji from the post last week, not the picture.

But according to Norway’s Alcohol Act, all forms of advertising of alcohol to consumers are prohibited. Advertising is understood by law as “mass communication” for “marketing purposes.”

And an inspector from the municipality checked the Facebook page before controlling the restaurant. Considering the posts were a breach of prohibition against advertising, the manager therefore received one penalty point on its license.

Norway has set up a penalty-point system for licenses to sell alcohol. If a licensee is assigned a total of 12 penalty points over a period of two years, the municipal council will revoke the licence for a period of one week. Selling alcohol to someone under the age of 18 is an infringement that leads to eight penalty points. Selling alcohol outside serving time provisions is a penalty of four points.

At first, the bar owner Mr Kristensen thought it was nonsense, which has been covered by Norwegian media. And parliament member Helge André Njåstad from the Fremskrittspartiet, the Progress Party, even raised the matter up until the minister of Health. The Progress Party is the third largest political party in the Storting, Norway’s parliament, and considered to be more at the right of the Conservative Party.

Helge André Njåstad asked a written question to Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol, member of the left-wing  Labor Party, whether a cocktail emoji was really advertising alcohol consumption. Mr Njåstad considers it is “stupid” a ban on advertising legal products and claims to back people who work hard and create jobs in the country.

It hasn’t been the first criticism about the prohibition against advertising of alcoholic beverages recently.

In October last year, the steakhouse restaurant Big Horn in Tønsberg shared a post with the bottle with popping cork emoji🍾. The restaurant hired a lawyer to dispute the inspection penalty, and the director of the municipality would reportedly consider the emoji is the symbol of a party not necessarily marketing alcoholic beverages, according to Tønsbergs Blad.

Earlier in January, the independent brewery Salikatt in Stavanger, the fourth largest city of Norway in the southwest of the country, asked their customers not to tag them on social media for not being considered as promoting alcohol. The brewery thought the interpretation of the law was “shocking and unreasonably strict,” after it received a letter by the Directorate of Health asking to remove mentions on social media for the last years. The five-employee brewery was given the opportunity to make amend first by removing tags on pictures and post before receiving a penalty.

Norwegian Directorate of Health, the body responsible for enforcing the Alcohol Act, reacted to the outcry that this caused and published a note on January 10 reminding that the advertising ban on alcohol also applies on social media.

It recalled that they don’t hold manufacturers responsible for the statements of private individuals. However, Department director Øyvind Giæver clarifies that “what the Norwegian Directorate of Health considers to be a breach of the advertising ban is the dissemination by alcohol players of posts that contain positive reviews of the alcohol player’s products or of alcohol in general.” Mr Giæver further points out that only few players who choose to be on social media fully comply with the prohibition against advertising of alcoholic beverages.

Private individuals can freely mention and tag alcohol producers in social media, but the producers need to ensure it does not appear on their social media channels.

Businesses in the alcohol industry can only promote their products to other professionals, such as bars and restaurants, except, since 2016, for fact-based information about alcohol published on their own websites. This exception doesn’t apply for social media as they may be accessible to people, including children, who have not been looking specifically for such information.

Moreover, the industry cannot circumvent the advertising ban using their social media profiles to show positive comments on their products, such as newspaper reviews and posts by private individuals tagging the brand, according to the directorate.

Words and expressions that do not mention alcohol directly but which many people will still associate with alcohol, are also illegal.

Minister Kjerkol answered Mr Njåstad’s question regarding the cocktail emoji.

Although she didn’t want to go into specific case of the cocktail emoji as it “must be assessed concretely on a case-by-case basis,” she seems to support the decision as “the government wants to continue a restrictive alcohol policy. […] In the assessment, consideration must be given to the purpose behind the use of emojis in the relevant communication. The ban on alcohol advertising cannot be circumvented by using illustrations or the like,” she added.

Mr Njåstad felt disappointed by the minister’s answer, which he considered was from a “bureaucrat” that was “completely contrary to common sense.”

Bar-On’s manager reportedly decided not to appeal the decision to stay in good terms with the alcohol inspection.

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