Dr Sadie Boniface, Head of Research at Institute of Alcohol Studies and Visiting Researcher at King’s College London, shares the findings of recent research into the impact of alochol marketing on adolescents.
Whether it’s advert breaks on TV, promotions online, or sports sponsorship, alcohol marketing is everywhere, and it’s a barrier to an alcohol-free childhood. Many of us are so accustomed to seeing alcohol marketing that it is easy to turn a blind eye to the effects. But alcohol marketing makes children and young people more likely to consume alcohol and to do so at a younger age. Decades of research has documented links between young people’s exposure to alcohol marketing and their alcohol use, with a major review confirming strong evidence this is a cause-and-effect link.
Companies aren’t allowed to create alcohol adverts that might have particular appeal to children, or to place alcohol adverts in media where children are the main audience. This is regulated by a system of rules and codes. However, four out of five 11–19 year olds can recall seeing at least one form of alcohol marketing in the past month, and even primary school-aged children recognise alcohol brands.
In collaboration with researchers at the University of Stirling and Cancer Research UK, IAS’ latest research (published in the peer-reviewed journal Alcohol & Alcoholism) asked over 2,500 adolescents aged 11-17 their views on three adverts for well-known beer and spirits brands. We selected alcohol adverts that were typical of those that young people would see, which had been shown on TV and online.
Overall, between a third and half of underage adolescents rated these adverts positively. Two of the adverts had humorous or fun content, and these were more likely to get positive reactions than the third advert which was a bit more sophisticated.
Not only were the adverts popular, but we also saw a link between reacting positively to adverts and intentions to drink. Among the 1,500 adolescents in the study who had never tried alcohol, those who had positive reactions to the adverts were more likely to say they might start drinking in the next year.
Our research only looked at three adverts and is just one snapshot in time, but the results fit in with the other research described above. Alcohol companies say that marketing is done to encourage existing drinkers to switch brands, but research shows alcohol marketing aims to recruit new drinkers as well as increase sales among existing – and especially heavy – drinkers. Taken together, there is a lot of evidence that the current UK alcohol marketing regulations are not working to protect young people from being exposed to content that appeals to them and influences their behaviour. Action is needed to reduce harm from alcohol both now and in the future: one in ten 11-15 year olds say they have been drunk in the past four weeks, and starting drinking at an earlier age is linked to a greater chance of alcohol problems in adulthood.
Alcohol advertising and marketing more broadly are slowly rising up the policy agenda. In the past few weeks, alcohol marketing has been raised in a debate on the Alcohol Harm Commission report in the House of Lords, and in a debate on alcohol labelling in the House of Commons. The UK should follow the lead of other countries such as France, Lithuania, Norway and Ireland, where restrictions on alcohol marketing protect vulnerable groups such as young people.