Advertising for alcoholic beverages in the mass media may be the most noticeable form of alcohol marketing but it represents only part of the picture. “Below the line” marketing, such as point-of-sale promotions or merchandising, the use of other products connected with alcohol brands, sponsorship, or alcohol advertising in online media have only recently received research attention.

A Child Rights issue

Alcohol marketing targeting children and youth is a violation of their rights enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Children and youth have the right to grow up in a healthy environment, to be protected from being hurt, from receiving harmful information and from any kind of exploitation.

Targeted marketing by the alcohol industry to children and youth violates these rights.

Chang beer targeting children

Chang beer targeting children

A child protection issues

Consider this example: The majority of Irish children are regularly exposed to alcohol advertising and marketing.

Significant exposure to alcohol marketing increases the likelihood that children will use alcohol, binge use and engage in risky behavior. 90% of Irish children were exposed to “traditional” or off-line advertising in the week prior to the study, with more than 50% of those surveyed citing four or more such advertisements a day. 77% reported online exposure and 61% owned alcohol-branded merchandise.

More than half of Irish children (53.5%) between the ages of 13 and 15 had previously consumed alcohol.

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Early Onset, More Consumption

There is a direct link between exposure to alcohol ads and the earlier uptake of alcohol consumption and – if kids are already using alcohol – exposure to alcohol ads is directly linked with alcohol consumption in bigger amounts.

The Science Group of the European Alcohol and Health Forum (EAHF) concluded in 2009:

Alcohol marketing increases the likelihood that adolescents will start to use alcohol, and to consume more if they are already using alcohol.”

Minors in the United States were only slightly less likely than their older counterparts to have seen an alcohol ad. While 26% of young adults between the ages of 21 and 23 had seen a given alcohol advertisement, 23% of 15 to 17 year olds said they’d seen the same one. Young people who could accurately identify alcoholic products and who said they liked the ads were more likely to try alcohol or to consume more of it.

From 2001 to 2009, youth exposure to alcohol advertising on television in the United States increased by 71% (more than the exposure of either adults ages 21 and above or young adults ages 21 to 34). This is largely attributable to increased alcohol ads on cable television programs, particularly by distilled spirits companies. The increase in spirits advertising coincides with an increase in consumption of liquor by high school students, particularly among those who binge cosnume alcohol.

Brand Loyalty & Lifetime Consumers

Evidence shows that children and youth are much easier to influence with marketing messages than adults.

A review of the neuroscience, psychology and marketing literatures shows that

  • Adolescents, because of how the human brain develops, may be particularly attracted to branded products such as alcohol that are associated with risky behavior and that provide, in their view, immediate gratification, thrills and/or social status.[1]

Exposure to alcohol advertising shapes attitudes and perceptions about alcohol use among both young people (defined in this study as ages 15-20) and young adults (ages 21 to 29). However, these attitudes and perceptions predict young people’s positive expectancies and intentions to consume alcohol, but not those of young adults.[2]

  • Alcohol abstaining 12-year- olds who possess a promotional item from an alcohol producer, or would like to have one, have a 77% higher likelihood of starting to use alcohol one year later compared to children who do not possess a promotional item and do not have a favourite alcohol brand.
  • Youth who saw more alcohol advertisements consumed more on average, each additional advertisement seen increasing the number of drinks consumed by 1%. Youth in markets with more alcohol advertisements showed increased consumption levels into their late 20s whereas alcohol plateaued in the early 20s for youth in markets with fewer advertisements.[3]

Overall exposure to brand-specific alcohol advertising is a significant predictor of underage youth alcohol brand consumption, with youth ages 13 to 20 more than five times more likely to consume brands that advertise on national television and 36% more likely to consume brands that advertise in national magazines compared to brands that don’t advertise in these media.

  • In the USA, almost half of the 7th grade non-alcohol users became alcohol users by 9th grade. The more ads youth saw during 8th grade, the greater the likelihood they would take up alcohol use in 9th grade.
  • Teenage boys who own an alcohol-branded promotional item are 1.78 times more likely to start using alcohol than boys who do not own such items. For girls, the figure was 1.74

The ad effect is real

The advertising effect persisted after the researchers accounted for numerous other influences on youth alcohol use, for example, doing poorly in school or having peers who consume alcohol.

Different kinds of ads have different influences on youth depending on a youngster’s prior alcohol use. For initial non-alcohol users, in-store beer displays had the most sway. For initial alcohol users, ads in magazines and concession stand displays at sports and music events had the most influence.[1]

Children and youth are exposed to a ‘tsunami of alcohol ads’ in Australia, especially during sports broadcasts on TV.

Brand familiarity predicts alcohol use

Primary school children in England and Scotland are more familiar with beer brands than biscuits.

Ownership of alcohol-branded promotional items influenced young people’s alcohol use behaviour. Controlling for a broad range of confounding variables, both the possession of a promotional item and an attitudinal susceptibility towards alcohol brands predicted the age of onset of alcohol consumption as well as binge-use among 10 to 14-year-olds.

Inadequate Protection

The best alcohol marketing regulations in the world can be found in France and Norway. Both countries implement a total ban on alcohol advertising.

But in general, the picture looks more like in Australia: There is some statutory regulation, some reliance on self-regulation by the alcohol industry and some loopholes and pitfalls in that mixture that leave children and youth unprotected.

Research shows children who are exposed to alcohol advertising are more likely to start using alcohol earlier and to use more alcohol. But Australian regulations are inadequate to protect children and adolescents from such advertising. That’s the finding of the Australian National Preventive Health Agency (ANPHA) review of alcohol advertising. Importantly, it makes 30 recommendations to fix the problem. A clause in Australia’s advertising regulations allowing alcohol advertising in live sport programming during the day when children are watching appears to be responsible for children’s exposure to thousands of alcohol adverts each year, the study suggests.

Chang beer targeting children

Current European regulations for commercial communications on alcohol are poorly monitored and widely diverse, creating the need for approximation across Europe, with specification needed as to the extent to which alcohol advertising in certain categories of media and publications is allowed.

In many low- and middle income countries around the world, alcohol marketing is not regulated at all – leading to an alcohol industry bonanza, or it’s only very weakly regulated and even more poorly enforced.

Marketing Consequences

Risks for brain development

The human brain develops until the age of 25. Alcohol consumption poses therefore a developmental risk to children and youth, concerning the development of cognitive and intellectual capacities.

Predicting social and health problems later in life

The earlier young people start using alcohol, the more likely they are to suffer alcohol-related health and social problems later in life.

  • Every day in the US, 4,750 young people under 16 years of age consumer their first full drink of alcohol.
  • Compared to those who wait until they are 21 to start using alcohol, young people who take up alcohol consumption before age 15 are 4 times more likely to become alcohol dependent, 7 times more likely to be in a motor vehicle crash because of alcohol intake, and 11 times more likely to be in a physical fight after alcohol use.

Alcohol ads make kids take up alcohol

Exposure to alcohol advertising and marketing increases the likelihood that young people will start using alcohol, or that they will consume more if they are already consuming alcohol. A wide range of studies has established the association between exposure to alcohol marketing and youth alcohol intake behavior, even after controlling for a variety of variables such as parental monitoring or socioeconomic status.

There is also evidence that underage alcohol use and the likelihood of alcohol problems in later life are closely related to positive expectations of the benefit of alcohol use, precisely the expectancies advertising is designed to encourage.[4]

Increased risk of premature death

Teens hospitalized for alcohol-related injuries are more likely to die within 10 years.

  • Alcohol consumption among youth translates into significant morbidity and mortality.
  • Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among those younger than 25 years old;
  • Alcohol is a factor in 41% of deaths in car crashes.
  • In 2007, 11% of high school students reported driving a car or other vehicle during the past 30 days when they had been consuming alcohol. In addition, 29% of students reported riding in a car or other vehicle during the past 30 days driven by someone who had been using alcohol.
  • The second and third leading causes of death in this age group are homicides and suicides, 20% to 40% of which involve alcohol.

A growing body of literature shows that alcohol advertising is an important factor related to alcohol consumption among youth. Research has now established that alcohol advertisements target youth, result in increased alcohol consumption, and add to morbidity and mortality.

Targeting Kids Through Sports

The alcohol industry uses sports, especially football – the largest sport in the world – to associate their products not with cancer, diabetes, liver cirrhosis and death but with physical strength, glamorous success and joyful adventures.

In the UK, the alcohol industry spends around £800 million annually marketing its products – to normalize and glamorize alcohol and to promote its brands as aggressively as possible.

  • More than 9 in 10 children correctly identified the brand name ‘Fosters’ as an alcohol product. Further analysis revealed that awareness was higher amongst children who had sampled alcohol before and who used social media.
  • In England almost half of the children surveyed (47%) correctly associated Carlsberg beer with the England national football team: Carlsberg is the ‘Official beer of the England football team,’ and a high profile sponsor. Children who watched TV were more than twice as likely to make the connection between Carlsberg and the England team, compared with those who did not (47% versus 20% respectively).

The evidence shows:

  • Children who love to watch sport on television are more likely to get exposed to alcohol ads than those who watch non-sport TV, a new Australian study has found.
  • 87% of all alcohol adverts during the daytime were in sport TV when hundreds of thousands of children were watching.
  • The study found that there were 6,049 alcohol adverts on free-to-air sport TV in 2012, with significantly more alcohol adverts per hour in sport than non-sport TV.
  • A quarter of all alcohol advertising was in sport advertising, and there were significantly more alcohol ads per hour during the day than in non-sport television during the evening.
  • Between 2001 and 2005, youth exposure to alcohol advertising on television in the U.S. increased by 41%. Much of this increase resulted from the rise in distilled spirits advertising on television from 1,973 ads in 2001 to 46,854 ads in 2005.[5]
  • A study of 2,406 never-alcohol using New Hampshire middle school students found that ownership of alcohol-branded merchandise at baseline was significantly associated with increased likelihood of having initiated alcohol consumption at follow-up one to two years later, after adjusting for wide range of confounders.[6]

Profit Over Child Rights

Big Alcohol pays loads of money for advertising, and it pays off

In 2003, the alcohol industry spent $540.8 million to advertise their products during sports programming on TV.

Greater exposure to alcohol advertising contributes to an increase in alcohol use among underage youth. Specifically, for each additional ad a young person saw (above the monthly youth average of 23), he or she consumed 1% more. For each additional dollar per capita spent on alcohol advertising in a local market (above the national average of $6.80 per capita), young people consumed 3% more.[7]

Youth in markets with greater alcohol advertising expenditures consumed more, each additional dollar spent per capita increasing the number of drinks consumed by 3%.[8]

Big Alcohol gets the profits, we pay the bill

In the US, underage alcohol use accounted for at least 16% of all alcohol sales in 2001, leading to 3,170 deaths and 2.6 million other harmful events in that year alone. The annual economic costs in their analysis includes $5.4 billion in direct medical costs, $14.9 billion in work and other resource losses, and $41 billion in lost quality of life.

Self-Regulation Failure

In 25 of the largest television markets in the US, almost 25% of the alcohol ads airing on this sample of national television programs popular with youths had local underage audiences bigger than 30%, exceeding the alcohol industry’s voluntary self-regulatory codes, and more than one third aired during programs that exceeded the NRC/IOM recommended threshold of 15% youth audience composition.

If the advertising exceeding the industry threshold of 30% were eliminated and not replaced, total youth exposure to alcohol advertising on these programs would drop by 33%.

If alcohol companies were to eliminate and not replace advertisements above the NRC/IOM recommended limit of 15%, total youth exposure to alcohol advertising on these programs would drop by an estimated 54%.[1]

In their report “Calling Time”, The Academy of Medical Sciences presented the following graph, showing a high correlation between alcohol consumption by 11-15 year-olds and amount spent on advertising in current prices (i.e. actual number of pounds spent).[9]

Heavy advertising by the alcohol industry in the US has such considerable influence on adolescents that its removal would lower underage alcohol use in general and binge consumption in particular.

The analysis suggested that the complete elimination of alcohol advertising could reduce monthly alcohol use by adolescents from about 25% to about 21%, and binge consumption from 12% to around 7%.[10]

Scientific Evidence

For further reading: 

Scientific Opinion of the Science Group of the European Alcohol and Health Forum (2009), ‘Does marketing communication impact on the volume and patterns of consumption of alcoholic beverages, especially by young people? – a review of longitudinal studies’

Scientific evidence (if not as online source):

[1] C. Pechmann, L. Levine, et al., “Impulsive and self-conscious: Adolescents’ vulnerability to advertising and promotion,” Journal of Public Policy and Marketing 24(2005): 202-221.

[2] K. Fleming, E. Thorson, et al., “Alcohol Advertising Exposure and Perceptions: Links with Alcohol Expectancies and Intentions to Drink or Drinking in Underaged Youth and Young Adults,” Journal of Health Communication 9(2004): 3-29.

[3] Snyder, L. B, Milici, F., Slater, M., Sun, H., Strizhakova, Y (January 2006)., ‘Effects of Alcohol Advertising Exposure on Drinking Among Youth’, Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 160: 1, pp. 18-24

[4] Hill, L., and Casswell, S (2001)., ‘Alcohol Advertising and Sponsorship: Commercial Freedom and Control in the Public Interest’ in Heather, N., Peters, J. S., and Stockwell, T (eds)., ‘International Handbook of Alcohol Dependence & Problems’, John Wiley & Sons

[5] Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, Still Growing After All These Years: Youth Exposure to Alcohol Advertising on Television, 2001?2005 (Washington, D.C., 2006).

[6] Snyder, L. B, Milici, F., Slater, M., Sun, H., Strizhakova, Y (January 2006)., ‘Effects of Alcohol Advertising Exposure on Drinking Among Youth’, Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 160: 1, pp. 18-24 

[7] L.B. Snyder, F.F. Milici, M. Slater, H. Sun, and Y. Strizhakova, “Effects of Alcohol Advertising Exposure on Drinking Among Youth,” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 160 (2006): 18-24.

[8] Snyder, L. B, Milici, F., Slater, M., Sun, H., Strizhakova, Y (January 2006)., ‘Effects of Alcohol Advertising Exposure on Drinking Among Youth’, Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 160: 1, pp. 18-24

[9] Academy of Medical Sciences (March 2004), ‘Calling Time: The Nation’s drinking as a major health issue’

[10] Saffer, H., and Dave, D (May 2003)., ‘Alcohol Advertising and Alcohol Consumption by Adolescents’, NBER Working Paper No. 9676