Should Alcohol Advertising Be Regulated?

Alcohol Advertising: Are Our Kids Collateral or Intended Targets?

George A. Hacker
Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free Conference
January 10, 2002

Alcohol marketers say they have voluntary standards that prevent them from targeting consumers younger than the legal purchase age. They claim to avoid pitches that primarily appeal to teenagers and to pass up ad placements that reach an audience that is predominantly underage. Yet, we are told, when one reaches 21, former teens become potentially valuable alcohol consumers and legitimate targets for aggressive promotions to drink. The sad reality is that people under 21 are also in industry’s cross-hairs; whether they’re the intended targets is a matter of debate. The result, however, is the same. Millions of underage persons regularly absorb hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising for booze. Those messages weave through all media and countless marketing arenas; they mirror youth culture and relate directly to the interests, motivations, and aspirations of young people.

Much has been said about the content of ads; about their use of animals, cartoons, humor, music, athletics, and themes of belonging and friendship. Obviously, those elements catch the fancy of young people. One need only recall the Bud frogs and lizards, Spuds MacKenzie, and Whassup space-alien dogs to recognize the prominence of beer advertising in youth culture.

Strangely, those commercials comply with beer industry and broadcasters’ advertising codes and meet (essentially meaningless) federal requirements. The Beer Institute’s Voluntary Advertising Code asks whether the ads appeal primarily to underage people. Whether they reach an audience that is mostly under the age of 21. That’s some standard when merely 30% of the population is under 21, and barely 16% – [likely among the viewers of the shows sponsored by brewers] – is aged 10 to 20? In 1999, even the Federal Trade Commission questioned the adequacy of those guidelines, suggesting that they be strengthened. No answer yet from the beer industry, which mistakenly interpreted that report as awarding brewers a gold star for responsibility.

Recently, as a sop for accepting liquor ads after 50 years of restraint, NBC set a voluntary standard requiring that the ads run after 9 p.m. and audiences for those ads be at least 85% adult. Without suggesting an absolute limit on the number of underage persons in the audience, that’s hardly an improvement. This week, Advertising Age magazine reported that all but one prime time show on NBC met that standard. Think about this possibility: an NBC show watched by everyone in America over the age of 10. Nearly every single 10- to 19-year-old could be watching and that show would still meet the guideline. Obviously, rules such as these don’t so much protect our children as serve them up to alcoholic-beverage advertisers such as Smirnoff Vodka. [For example, some 20% to 25% of the mammoth audience for the Super Bowl – the yearly showcase for funny, provocative, trend-setting, youth-oriented beer ads – is younger than 21. Those more than 30 million young people watching comprise as many as 40% of all the people under 21 in America.]

NBC’s new "responsible" advertising standards, which apply to liquor products only, don’t go far enough. And who knows how long they’ll even last. Once liquor producers gain enough economic clout over NBC and other TV networks to demand the same treatment as beer, they’re likely to erode or disappear entirely. Once those standards go, we shouldn’t be surprised to see broadcast versions of liquor ads that now appear in youth-oriented magazines, such as Vibe, Spin, and Rolling Stone. Already, Jack Daniels whiskey is pushing for commercial time on NFL football, and Smirnoff Ice, a liquor-branded malt beverage, has its sights set on the Super Bowl. Last week, the Bacardi bat symbol formed the prominent backdrop for the rap half-time show at the Orange Bowl, where much of the collegiate audience (both in the stadium and at home) must have been underage. 

Television provides but one example of industry’s cavalier or deliberate targeting of young people. The United States Ski and Snowboard Association holds competitions all over the country; many of its members – and many of the contestants – are teenagers. Yet, this Vermont event last year provided a staging center for Captain Morgan and his Seagram rum. A look-alike was there glad-handing youngsters, and his likeness – in the form of a 10-foot tall inflatable – was out on the race course; the contestants wore official Captain Morgan bibs. Until an outraged mother complained, the USSA’s website also prominently featured the Captain and the product’s logo; that site, a prime source of race information, attracts thousands of underage competitors and sports fans.

Lisa Leslie, Olympian and professional basketball player and 2001 Sportswoman of the Year, is a clear draw for young people. No one doubts that Nike seeks young consumers and therefore invests in the WNBA; shouldn’t we question though when Anheuser-Busch, whose Bud Light beer sponsors the league and hires Ms. Leslie to appear in its ads, does the same?

Beer companies plaster their names wherever sports audiences are found, and aim to take center stage as well: judging by the team’s uniforms, you wouldn’t know that San Diego’s indoor professional soccer team is called the Sockers. Or, here at DC’s MCI Arena, you wouldn’t know that beer and children don’t mix.

NBC, which will broadcast the upcoming Utah winter Olympic games, recently revitalized its on-air promotions, adding a techno beat and a blitz of images: crashing skiers, somersaulting freestylers, and careening hockey players, in an effort to appeal to today’s high-tech, media savvy, stimulation-saturated youth. Extreme sports have been added to the games to broaden the audience and bolster the important youth market, including 18- to 21-year-olds. NBC said it wanted to talk to younger fans "as best we could." Anheuser-Busch, a prime sponsor of the games and a prominent advertiser during the events, will also be talking to the same crowd, as best it can.

NBC president and chief operating officer for the Olympics, Randy Falco (who also presided over NBC’s December decision to take liquor ads) says "[the] Winter Games in particular are really all about speed, all about edge. It’s really perfect for a younger demographic."

Booze marketers also appeal to young people by developing familiar, sweet-tasting products. That’s happening now in the "alcopop" market, where brewers are falling over themselves – and falling in with liquor companies too – to roll out hard lemonades and other fruit-flavored concoctions that resemble familiar soft drinks – in taste and often in look – more than they do alcoholic beverages. Kids tell us that they go down easy and help introduce young people to other alcoholic drinks. National polls that we conducted last April found that teenagers know about "alcopops" a lot more than adults do, and they actually use them more.

Industry data, too, reflect the significant participation of underage users among consumers: Mintel International, as reported by Super Market Research, estimates that "nearly one-quarter of people age 19 to 20 drink coolers including spirits-based pre-mixed beverages, accounting for 7 percent of all cooler drinkers." And they’re not even counting a lot of 15- to 18-year-olds! Mintel’s calculation also fails to acknowledge that underage drinkers probably consume more than their proportional share of the products. Quite possibly, teenagers down some 10% of all the "alcopops" sold, if not more.

Policy makers accept as dogma the allegations that the tobacco industry reaches and targets young people. And, even though the scientific evidence is no more conclusive than that for the effects of alcohol ads, we accept as an article of faith that tobacco ads entice young people to take up smoking and keep on puffing. Why then does industry’s argument – that advertising promotes brand identification and choice but does not encourage or increase alcohol use – get so much credit? In its propaganda, industry denies the effects of alcohol ads on young people, stressing the inconclusiveness of studies and citing dated edicts from the Federal Trade Commission and other studies from free-market oriented researchers.

The reality is different. The most recent pronouncements of the FTC on the effects of advertising support common sense. In its 1999 report on the booze industry’s voluntary advertising standards, the FTC determined (as had previous Chairman Janet Steiger in her 1991 testimony to Congress) that the inconclusive nature of the studies "does not rule out the existence of a clinically important effect of advertising on youth drinking decisions."                           

As recently as last June, the United States Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts ban on billboard advertising for tobacco products, but reaffirmed what common sense tells us about advertising. In ruling that the state met its burden of providing sufficient evidence of the relationship between tobacco advertising and smoking, the Court upheld its long-standing acknowledgment that product advertising stimulates demand and the absence of it suppresses it. Are we to believe that billboard advertising for tobacco products affects children, but frogs, lizards, party scenes, and humor in television ads for beer are impotent to do the same?

When it comes to assessing whether industry promotions, including advertising, influence our children to drink, we should trust our eyes and ears and our understanding of the effects of multi-million dollar advertising budgets. Whether alcohol producers intentionally target 15- and 16- year-olds is irrelevant. That they reach them with the most sophisticated means and the most seductive messages creates enough of a problem. We owe it to our children and to the public health and safety of America to challenge such marketing activities, [if we have any hope of actualizing our goal to keep children alcohol free]. Likewise, we owe it to our children to work together to implement a National Media Campaign to Prevent Underage Drinking, so that alcohol is no longer ignored as the number-one health and safety risk for young people.

MADD Guidelines

Advertising increases alcohol consumption, which increases alcohol abuse....right? WRONG. There is no solid evidence from either scientific research or practical experience that this theory of advertising is correct.

- A study by the Federal Trade Commission found that there is "no reliable basis to conclude that alcohol advertising significantly affects consumption, let alone abuse."

-A United States Senate subcommittee reported in the Congressional Record that it could not find evidence to conclude that advertising influences non-drinkers to begin drinking or to increase consumption.

- The United States Department of Health and Human Services in its report to Congress concluded that there is no significant relationship between alcohol advertising and alcohol consumption. It did not recommend banning or imposing additional restrictions on advertising.

- A University of Texas study of alcohol advertising over a 21-year period found that the amount of money spent on alcohol ads had little relationship with total consumption in the population.

- Studies in both Canada and the United States find no significant link between restrictions on advertising and alcohol consumption.

- Alcohol advertising expenditures have increased, during which time alcohol-related traffic fatalities have declined.

- The founding Director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recently pointed out that "There is not a single study - not one study in the United States or internationally - that credibly connects advertising with an increase in alcohol use or abuse."

- The definitive review of research from around the world found that advertising has virtually no influence on consumption and has no impact whatsoever on either experimentation with alcohol or its abuse.  This is consistent with other reviews of the research.

- Advertising does not increase consumption. For example, alcohol brand advertising was first introduced in New Zealand in 1992. While advertising continues to increase, consumption continues to fall.

If advertising doesn't increase consumption, why bother to advertise? The answer is simple: to increase market share.

Alcohol is a "mature" product category in that consumers are already aware of the product and its basic characteristics. Therefore, overall consumption is not affected significantly by advertising specific brands.

Instead of increasing total consumption, the objective of advertisers is to encourage consumers to switch to their brand and create brand loyalty. Thus, effective advertisers gain market share at the expense of others, who lose market share. They do not try to increase the total market for the product. An example can illustrate why they don't.

The total retail value of beer produced annually in the U.S. is about $50 billion. If a producer's advertising campaign increases its market share by one percent, its sales would increase by $500 million. However, if the total market for beer increased by one percent, a brand with a 10% share of the market would only experience a sales increase of $50 million.

Clearly, a producer has a great incentive to increase market share, but little incentive (or ability) to increase the total market. For this reason, advertisers focus their efforts on established consumers. They seek to strengthen the loyalty of their own consumers and induce other consumers to try their brand.

Table I
Scenario I: Increase in Total Market
Total beer market sales $50,000,000,000
Brand X's 10% share of market $5,000,000,000
Total market grows by one percent to... $55,000,000,000,000
Brand X's 10% share is now... $5,050,000,000

Scenario II: Increase in Market Share
Total beer market remains stable $50,000,000,000
Brand X's 10% market share increases one percent $500,000,000
Brand X's 11% market share $5,500,000,000

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Much has been made of the fact that many young people have greater recognition of some alcohol beverage brand labels than of former US presidents.  These reports make great press but what does it all mean? Probably nothing because there is no evidence that such recognition leads to experimentation, consumption, or abuse. Sometimes it even appears to be related to less drinking later.

Similarly, most adults are probably much better at identifying photos of popular entertainers than of William Henry Harrison, Franklin Pierce, Chester Arthur, John Tyler, or other former presidents of the US. That probably doesn't mean much either.

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A widely reported "fact" is that by the age of 18, the typical young person will have seen 100,000 beer commercials. However, to see that many such commercials, it appears that a person would have to view television for about 161,290 hours or 18.4 years.  Thus, a person would have to begin watching TV 24 hours a day, each and every day, from birth until after age 18.

In reality, viewers are much more likely to see alcohol portrayed during TV programs than during commercials. For example, an analysis of prime time TV found that alcohol commercials appeared at the rate of 0.2 per hour while drinking portrayals during programs occurred 25 times more frequently, at five times per hour.

Perhaps those who want to reduce the presence of alcohol on television should propose eliminating the programming and let children watch commercials instead.

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You haven't noticed them?! All those swirls, squiggles and unusual shapes in ice cubes, on bottles, in liquid being poured, and elsewhere in alcohol beverage ads. The Center for Science in the Public Interest insists that "With little imagination, one can see some of these elements as faces, animals, breasts, penises, death masks, and other forms...."  This assertion may tell us more about the Center for Science in the Public Interest than about the ads.

Most people can easily imagine or "see" faces, animals and other objects in clouds and inkblots, but the Center for Science in the Public Interest suggests that the "unidentified printed objects" in alcohol beverage print ads are intentionally placed there by advertisers, apparently to subconsciously seduce people to drink Astonishingly, it actually calls for an investigation of these sinister objects, including having "corporate executives testify under oath on the witness stand." And while the Center for Science in the Public Interest is at it, perhaps it should call for a Congressional investigation of clouds and inkblots.

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One of the main arguments against alcohol beverage ads on television is that they "normalize" drinking in the minds of young viewers. To the extent that this is true, the ads may be performing a positive role.

The commonplace nature of alcohol ads on TV serves not to glamorize the products, as some critics suggest, but to cast them as mundane consumer products, right alongside aspirin, cookies, and alkaline batteries. That's a constructive way for young people to view them.

On the other hand, if we treat beverage alcohol as a dangerous substance to be avoided and not even advertised, we inadvertently raise it up from the ordinary into the realm of the powerful, the tantalizing, and the desirable Big Deal. In so doing, we slip into the familiar, failed pattern of demonizing the substance of alcohol rather than discouraging irresponsible behavior.

We should help young people regard the substance of alcohol as neutral --- neither inherently good nor inherently bad. What matters is how it is used, and we must convey by word and example that the abuse of alcohol is never humorous, acceptable, or excusable.

Do alcohol ads portray the products being enjoyed in the most appealing settings and by the most attractive people? Of course they often do --- no less than do ads for cars, instant coffee and anti-fungal sprays. That normalcy of alcohol ads helps demystify the product --- which is a good place to begin encouraging realistic, moderate, and responsible attitudes about it.

Responsible attitudes toward alcohol are based on the understanding that such beverages are yet another part of life over which individuals have control, like exercise, personal hygiene, or diet.

If alcohol beverages are to be used moderately by those who choose to consume them, then it's important that these beverages not be stigmatized, compared to illegal drugs, and associated with abuse. They aren't dangerous poisons to be hidden from sight and become a subject of mystery and perhaps fascinating appeal. But that would be the message sent if alcohol commercials were banned from TV.


In spite of all the colorful rhetoric and emotional anecdotes, alcohol commercials do not cause young people to drink. The greatest influence of their beliefs, attitudes and behaviors are from their parents.

Parents are much more influential than they generally realize. For example, among six things that might affect their decisions about drinking, 62% of American youth aged 12 to 17 identified their parents as a leading influence:
- Parents (62 percent)
- Best friends (28 percent)
- Teachers (9 percent)
- What they see on television (7 percent)
- What they see in ads (4 percent).

It is parents, rather than alcohol ads, with the great influence over young people.