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Guest editorial: Alcohol advertising: what's the problem?

This article was published 9 years ago. Content may no longer be relevant.

While advertising of alcohol keeps spreading and spreading, the industry denies this leads to more harms. The evidence says otherwise, and something needs to be done about it, says Australian Catholic University’s Professor Sandra Jones.

Despite what the industry may tell you, systematic review of longitudinal studies on adolescent alcohol use, published in Alcohol and Alcoholism in 2009, concluded that “alcohol advertising and promotion increases the likelihood that adolescents will start to use alcohol, and to drink more if they are already using alcohol”.

What is particularly disturbing about that conclusion is that most of the included studies only considered limited forms of alcohol advertising – typically print and/or broadcast – and collected data between 1985 and 2005. Firstly, advertising is far broader than traditional media channels – in Australia, the advertising industry describes ‘marketing communications’ as any material designed to promote the product. Secondly, the advertising (and media) landscape has fundamentally changed over the last decade.

Countries such as Australia and New Zealand continue to allow the alcohol industry to self-regulate its own advertising, despite decades of evidence that self-regulation even of traditional advertising is ineffective and that young people perceive messages in alcohol advertisements that directly contravene the industry’s own codes. Further, the very nature of Australia’s self-regulation suggests it has been developed to protect marketers rather than consumers. For example, alcohol advertisements are only allowed on TV during periods of M, MA or AV programmes except during the live broadcast of sporting events on weekends and public holidays. Similarly, the Outdoor Media Association has limited “the advertising of alcohol products on fixed signs that are located within a 150 metre sight line of a primary or secondary school” except “where the school is in the vicinity of a club, pub or bottle shop or any other venue that sells alcohol products”.

Even traditional alcohol advertising has changed since these earlier studies, as marketers have become increasingly savvy at developing products and advertising that target vulnerable segments of consumers. For example, we now see alcohol advertisements in ‘health’ magazines promoting ‘low carb’ or ‘natural’ alcohol products and in women’s magazines promoting alcohol that is ‘low calorie’ or presented as a fashion accessory.

Other aspects of alcohol advertising and promotion are poorly regulated (such as online) or largely unregulated (such as point of sale). For example, research shows point-of-sale promotions are abundant in packaged alcohol outlets and that these promotions promote purchase of large quantities of alcohol, link desirable products to volume alcohol purchases and, not surprisingly, increase the amount of alcohol people purchase.

Australia and New Zealand continue to allow the alcohol industry to self-regulate its own advertising, despite decades of evidence that self-regulation even of traditional advertising is ineffective.

Alcohol ‘advertising’ is no longer a passive one-way communication – something we see on television or read in a magazine. It is now a conversation between alcohol brands and potential consumers in which consumers become the co-creators and distributors of alcohol advertising. A disturbing proportion of young people own alcohol-branded merchandise, and there is an association between this ownership and drinking related attitudes and behaviours – let alone that it makes them walking alcohol advertisements that further influence their peers.

The majority of alcohol brands have a web presence, which arguably promotes their products to ‘adult’ consumers, while using questionable age-verification methods that allow underage consumers to evade entry rules. Most brands also have multiple social media pages – including Facebook – which encourage consumers to like, comment, share, engage and build a relationship with the alcohol brand and thus introduce their new ‘friend’ to their network.

As mentioned, the majority of the studies exploring the links between alcohol marketing and consumption were conducted over a decade ago, when alcohol was a product we had to go to a store to purchase. The increasing array of places one can purchase alcohol not only makes it more accessible, it further blurs the line between ‘place’ (distribution channels) and ‘promotion’ (advertising).

It is now possible to purchase alcohol online from anywhere at any time. Group buying sites (such as Our Deal and Catch of the Day) and retailers (such as Vinomofo) target consumers with offers for large quantities of alcohol delivered to the door at prices substantially lower than bricks and mortar competitors. For those who can’t wait for the postman, major alcohol retailers now offer online or telephone orders that can be delivered the same day for a small delivery fee.

Alcohol advertising: what’s the solution?

Given the extensive evidence that industry self-regulation of alcohol advertising is ineffective (if the purpose is to protect the consumer rather than the marketer), there is a clear need for government or independent regulation. Such a regulatory system should include a monitoring function (rather than being dependent on consumer complaints) and penalties for non-compliance. To begin to address the nexus between alcohol and sport – and particularly young people’s exposure to a barrage of alcohol advertising – there should be a ban on alcohol sponsorship of sport and on alcohol advertising during sporting events.

This monitoring and regulation should extend to online channels – including websites, apps, video games, social media and video and photo-sharing services. Alcohol companies that use online advertising should be required to incorporate effective age restrictions on entry pages, and these should be monitored and enforced.

Point-of-sale marketing within alcohol outlets should be recognised and regulated as alcohol advertising and should extend to promotions that are associated with sporting events or that tie desirable ‘gifts’ to high-volume purchase (such as two four-packs) and drive increased consumption. Such regulations should also incorporate rules on price-related promotions to prevent multi-pack pricing that makes it cheaper to buy a larger quantity and promotions that enourage high-volume purchases (such as discounts on wine that are available only when purchasing more than three bottles).

The elephant in the room

We know, based on several comprehensive reviews of the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of interventions to reduce alcohol-related harms, that some of the most effective strategies are increasing price, reducing availability and banning alcohol advertising. The changes recommended by New Zealand’s Ministerial Forum on Alcohol Advertising and Sponsorship last year is exactly the type of approach we need to follow.

Among other things, they called for the government to ban alcohol advertising during streamed and broadcast sporting events, ban alcohol advertising where 10 percent or more of the audience is younger than 18, further restrict the hours for alcohol advertising on broadcast media and introduce additional restrictions on external advertising on licensed venues and outlets.

What we need now – in Australia, in New Zealand and across the globe – is governments that are brave enough to stop doing what doesn’t work (like allowing the industry to regulate itself) and start doing what does work.

Professor Sandra Jones is Director of the Centre for Health and Social Research (CHaSR) in Australian Catholic University’s Institute for Health, Melbourne.




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