Alcohol marketing and children
Much of the debate around alcohol advertising concerns the possible effects on children and young people. The Advertising Codes prohibit the specific targeting of minors, but the ubiquity of alcohol advertising ensures that they can hardly miss it. Ofcom report that since a period of gradual decline of exposure to television alcohol advertising for children aged 10–15 from 2002 to 2006, 2007 to 2011 represented a period of absolute increase in exposure. With the proliferation of online streaming services, there has also been shown to be a “substantial potential” for young people to be exposed to alcohol advertising through internet television. Research examining exposure to television alcohol advertising indicated that 10 to 15-year-olds in the UK were significantly more exposed to alcohol advertisements per viewing hour than adults (25 years and over).
In the UK, the proportion of children drinking alcohol remains well above the European average. Evidence shows that exposure to alcohol marketing encourages children to drink at an earlier age and in greater quantities than they otherwise would. The Science Committee of the European Alcohol and Health Forum concluded in 2009 that “alcohol marketing increases the likelihood that adolescents will start to use alcohol, and to drink more if they are already using alcohol”. Longitudinal research from Europe has suggested that adolescents’ alcohol use is affected by exposure to alcohol marketing, while research from the US has suggested that exposure to alcohol-related media may in fact begin a mutually influencing process in adolescents, escalating alcohol use over time; the more alcohol-related media they see, the more they drink, and the more they drink, the more they seek out alcohol-related media.
Indeed, the evidence is that even young children are aware of alcohol advertisements and tend to remember them. Manufacturers further reduce the chances of young people failing to get the message by sponsorship of sports teams and events and music concerts having particular appeal to the young. A 2016 systematic review of seven studies exploring alcohol sports sponsorship found a positive association between exposure to such marketing and alcohol consumption, with two of the studies reviewed showing this relationship held for schoolchildren. There is also evidence that underage drinking and the likelihood of alcohol problems in later life are closely related to positive expectations of benefits from alcohol use, precisely the expectancies advertising is designed to encourage.
American studies have found that children and teenagers respond particularly positively to TV advertisements featuring animals, humour, music and celebrities. It is suggested, therefore, that policy makers should ensure that advertisements should focus on product-related characteristics, using content less appealing to children and teenagers.
An American study found that heavy advertising by the alcohol industry in the US has such considerable influence on adolescents that its removal would lower underage drinking in general and binge drinking in particular. The analysis suggested that the complete elimination of alcohol advertising could reduce monthly drinking by adolescents from about 25% to about 21%, and binge drinking from 12% to around 7%. However, these estimated reductions were substantially less than those which the analysis suggested would result from significantly increasing the price of alcoholic drinks.
Another American study found that youth who saw more alcohol advertisements drank more on average, each additional advertisement seen increasing the number of drinks consumed by 1%. Also, youth in markets with greater alcohol advertising expenditures drank more, each additional dollar spent per capita increasing the number of drinks consumed by 3%. Youth in markets with more alcohol advertisements showed increased drinking levels into their late 20s whereas drinking plateaued in the early 20s for youth in markets with fewer advertisements.
A study of the impact of alcohol advertising on teenagers in Ireland found:
- Alcohol advertisements were identified as their favourite type of advert by the majority of those surveyed
- Most of the teenagers believed that the majority of the alcohol advertisements were targeted at young people. This was because the advertisements depicted scenes – dancing, clubbing, lively music, wild activities – that identified with young people
- The teenagers interpreted alcohol advertisements as suggesting, contrary to the code governing alcohol advertising, that alcohol is a gateway to social and sexual success and as having mood altering and therapeutic properties
A review of seven international research studies concluded that there is evidence for an association between prior alcohol advertising and marketing exposure and subsequent alcohol drinking behaviour in young people. The forms of exposure included both direct exposure to advertising using broadcast and print media, and indirect methods such as in-store promotions and portrayal of alcohol drinking in films, music videos and TV programmes. Three studies showed that onset of drinking in adolescent non-drinkers at baseline were significantly associated with exposure to alcohol marketing. One study showed that for each additional hour of TV viewing per day the risk of starting to drink increased by 9% during the following 18 months. Another found that youth with higher exposure to alcohol use depicted in popular movies were more likely to have tried alcohol 13 to 26 months later. Yet another showed that exposure to in-store beer displays significantly predicted drinking onset two years later. Two studies demonstrated dose response relationships. In one, in Flemish school children, increased frequency of TV viewing and music video viewing was highly significantly related to the amount of alcohol consumed while going out. In the other, of individuals aged 15 to 26 years, for each additional advertisement seen the number of drinks consumed increased by 1%, and for each additional dollar spent per capita on alcohol advertisements the number of drinks consumed increased by 3%.
A US study further found that receptivity to alcohol advertising on television predicted the onset of drinking, binge drinking and hazardous drinking for young people aged 15 to 23 years. A similar European study found that for adolescents, naming a favourite alcohol advertisement increased their likelihood of beginning to binge drink within the next year. Recent findings from the UK found that exposure to alcohol use in films was linked with higher risk of alcohol use and alcohol-related problems in adolescents. Such a link between alcohol use in movies and adolescent binge drinking was found to be relatively stable across cultures in a 2012 European study.
Social media and online represent a substantial marketing channel for many brands; in April 2016, Facebook was visited by 38.9 million unique users in the UK alone, whilst Twitter and Instagram received 20.9 million and 16.5 million respectively. Australian researchers investigating drinking behaviours of 15 to 29-year-olds have found an association between liking or following alcohol social media profiles and riskier alcohol consumption. US research found YouTube profiles created for fictional users aged 14, 17 and 19 were able to subscribe to 100% of the alcohol brand YouTube pages explored. Research from Australia found the alcohol websites they investigated typically had poor filter systems protecting underage visitors.
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