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.
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”.
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.
There is also evidence that underage drinking and the likelihood of alcohol problems in later life are closely related to positive expectations of benefit for 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 favourites 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 – 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 7 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.
3 studies showed that onset of drinking in adolescent non-drinkers at baseline were significantly associated with exposure. 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%.
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).
UK advertising expenditure at current prices and correlations with alcohol consumption 11 to 15 year-old children: 1992–2000
However, this correlation is vulnerable to changes in the years covered and also the choice of measure used. Including more recent data, so that the range of years covered is from 1992 to 2004, the correlation drops to 0.68. Furthermore, if expenditure is expressed in constant prices (adjusted for inflation, also known as ‘real’ prices), the correlation drops to -0.01, for the extended time period.
 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’
 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
 Saffer, H., and Dave, D (May 2003)., 'Alcohol Advertising and Alcohol Consumption by Adolescents', NBER Working Paper No. 9676
 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
 Dring, C., Hope, A (November 2001)., 'The Impact of Alcohol Advertising on Teenagers in Ireland', Health Promotion Unit, Department of Health & Children
 Smith, L., and Foxcroft, D (Novermber 2007)., ‘The effect of alcohol advertising and marketing on drinking behaviour in young people: systematic review of published longitudinal studies’, Alcohol Education and Research Council, now Alcohol Research UK
 Academy of Medical Sciences (March 2004), 'Calling Time: The Nation’s drinking as a major health issue'
 Figures for advertising expenditure taken from The Drink Pocket Book, 2006 Edition, World Advertising Research Centre Ltd and ACNielson. Figures for alcohol consumption taken from Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England, 2006, the NHS Information Centre, now the Health Social Care Information Centre