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Alcohol marketing: The debate

The alcohol and advertising industries argue that as alcoholic drink is a legal product it should be legally possible for it to be advertised, and that bans on alcohol advertising would have adverse effects on the alcohol market and on the media. They also argue that bans are not justified as advertising is concerned with promoting sales of individual brands and there is no evidence of a causal link between advertising and the overall level of alcohol consumption or the amount of alcohol-related harm.

The main counterarguments are that as well as promoting brands, advertising is also concerned with recruiting new drinkers and increasing sales among existing, and especially heavy consumers. Intensive advertising and promotion of alcohol appears to sanction and legitimise use of a product which causes high levels of damage to individuals and society; for example, restrictions on alcohol advertising has been found to be associated with lower rates of hazardous drinking in participants aged 50–64 years.[1]

By definition, alcohol advertising is one-sided, avoiding any reference to the negative aspects of alcohol consumption. In today’s circumstances, it is also necessary to enable alcohol to compete against other alternative drugs as well as soft drinks. There is in fact some evidence that bans on alcohol advertising can have beneficial effect on the level of harm, at least in the longer term.

The arguments regarding alcohol advertising are in most respects parallel to those concerning tobacco advertising. An analysis of internal documents from advertising agencies working for tobacco companies[2] exposed as highly disingenuous the standard tobacco (and alcohol) industry arguments that advertising is only about expanding or protecting brand share, not total consumption, and that if there are any problems, industry self-regulation is the answer.

The analysis concluded that:

  • The aim was to increase consumption as well as brand share. Individual brands gain from market expansion and therefore deliberate plans were made to encourage it
  • Other industry strategies included undermining government policy and evading regulation – for example, resisting and circumventing restrictions on advertising and tax increases on tobacco products
  • Voluntary, self-regulatory codes were treated cynically, the advertising agencies playing cat and mouse with the regulatory body, pushing to the limits and avoiding the rules whenever possible
  • The young were a key target, and the imagery used in the advertising was designed to attract them, although for public consumption, care was taken always to refer to the young adult market. The lifestyles, motivations and aspirations of young people were continuously assessed. It was concluded that young people smoked for emotional reasons and that the branding could meet their needs by adding aspiration, coolness and 'street cred' to the products. This in itself was counter to the regulatory code which stipulated that cigarette ads should not suggest that smoking was associated with social success or play on the susceptibilities of the emotionally vulnerable, especially the young
  • The issue was marketing, not just advertising alone. All aspects of marketing such as price, distribution and other commercial communications such as point of sale material and direct mail were brought into play to maximise the uptake and continuance of smoking and thus to increase sales
  • Advertising and sponsorship became one, performing the same key task of promoting the all-important brand images that appeal to young smokers.

Critics of the alcohol industry see many parallels here with the case of alcohol advertising and promotion.

Analysis of alcohol industry internal documents

In 2009, the House of Commons Health Select Committee launched an inquiry into the conduct of the UK alcohol industry. As part of this investigation, the Committee gained access to internal marketing documents from both producers and their advertising agencies.

An analysis of these documents presented the following findings:[3]

  • There are major shortcomings in the self-regulatory codes for alcohol advertising, which mean the codes do not protect young people
  • Young people are a clear target for alcohol advertisers
  • Producers are well aware that segments of their market do drink irresponsibly and analyse this behaviour for market opportunities
  • Advertisers seek to promote social success as a key element of brand campaigns
  • Advertisers regularly appeal to masculinity and femininity
  • Sponsorship is a large and powerful part of alcohol promotion
  • New media are a fast-growing channel for alcohol advertising, however the rate of innovation and volume of user generated content makes regulation very difficult

Since 2009 there has continued to be indications that the industry aims to increase consumption amongst existing drinkers, rather than simply advertising to maintain market share. In its 2013 Annual Report AB InBev claimed that its strategy aims to “create new occasions to share our products with consumers”, and to associate specific contexts with specific products to try to ensure that people drink on these occasions.[4] In 2014, the British Beer Alliance, a consortium of major British brewers, launched the £10m marketing campaign ‘There’s a Beer for That’, aiming to showcase “the variety of beer available in the UK and how these different styles fit perfectly a wide range of occasions” (please see the alcohol industry factsheet for further info).[5]


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[1] Bosque-Prous, M., Espelt, A., Guitart, A. M., Bartroli, M., Villalbí, J. R. and Brugal, M. T. (2014) ‘Association between stricter alcohol advertising regulations and lower hazardous drinking across European countries.’ Addiction, 109: 1634–1643 <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1111/add.12562/full>

[2] Hastings, G., and MacFadyen, L (2000)., ‘Keep Smiling – No One's Going to Die. An Analysis of Internal Documents from the Tobacco Industry’s Main UK Advertising Agencies. Centre for Tobacco Control Research’, University of Strathclyde <http://www.tobaccopapers.com/keepsmiling/#_blank>

[3] Memorandum by Professor Gerard Hastings, Institute for Social Marketing, University of Stirling & the Open University [AL 81] (January 2010)., ‘“They’ll Drink Bucket Loads of the Stuff”: An Analysis of Internal Alcohol Industry Advertising Documents’, to the House of Commons Health Select Committee Inquiry

[4] Anheuser-Busch InBev (2013), 2013 Annual Report <https://tinyurl.com/guel27d>

[5] Green, M. (2014), “There’s a Beer for That”: biggest names in British beer unite for £10 million campaign, Off Licence News [Online]. 30 October. [Accessed 17 December 2015]. Available from: <https://tinyurl.com/pvqlfbp>