To be an informed consumer of any product, we need to understand how that product is marketed to us. Our whole culture around alcohol, and our individual drinking habits are shaped by advertising. To change our personal behaviours, it helps to understand what impact advertising may have had on it. So, are we all being fooled by the drinks industry?
The alcohol industry is big business in the UK, with sales worth £39 billion per year. We all know that alcohol causes major problems, so even the industry has promised to promote sensible drinking to reduce the harms from excessive drinking. But what is the reality? Are they genuinely doing so, or only fooling us?
Alcohol Concern Cymru analysed alcohol adverts in their report “Drink responsibly (but please keep drinking)“. The findings were that less than half of adverts contain any kind of message promoting sensible drinking. And such messages, when they appear at all, are always in a smaller font than the rest of the text, and at the edges of the advert where they are less visible. And what’s even more naughty, these messages are often turned into a part of the promotion, with slogans like “Live Passionately, Drink Responsibly”, or even including the drinks brand as part of the message (“Enjoy BRAND X Responsibly”).
When academics have reviewed these matters, they conclude that the alcohol industry around the world is very much against any regulation of their marketing efforts. Instead, they propose self-regulation, where they set their own rules to follow: very much like the tobacco industry used to do in the past. But does such self-regulation work, or is it just pulling the wool over our eyes? It’s probably not a surprise that many people think the industry isn’t at all honest with their efforts.
Some damning evidence comes from the industry’s internal marketing materials. The UK parliament’s Health Select Committee investigated the conduct of the UK alcohol industry, and got access to these internal marketing documents from both alcohol producers and their advertising agencies. They were reviewed by Professor Gerard Hastings. His report lists six areas where the advertising is breaking the rules and regulations on the marketing of alcohol.
1. Marketing to young people, even those under the legal drinking limit, by for example trying to attract “new 18 year old lads” to drink their products.
2. Targeting the heaviest and binge drinkers. Since this can’t be done openly, marketing plans use words like “seeking more light users” to “move up the consumption scale”, or talk about selling shots “to crank up the evening, accelerate the process of getting drunk with less volume of liquid”.
3. Promoting drinking as equal to sociability or social success, which is also not allowed. Again, although this can’t be done openly, it can still be heavily hinted at in advertising by using words and images to suggest it.
4. Enhancing masculinity or femininity. Although illegal, these types of messages are also common, for example highlighting a vodka brand as ‘urbane’, ‘masculine’ and ‘charismatic’.
5. Sponsorship – again, linking alcohol with youth culture or sporting achievement is not allowed, yet this kind of sponsorship of sports and music events is commonplace.
6. Online and social media. These new ways of advertising are used to create misleading messages (example: “It should look like it’s come from your mate, but is in fact [major beer brand] branded”), and are less well monitored than traditional advertising, so provide opportunities for the alcohol producers to further stretch the limits of the marketing rules.
Does all this matter? So what if there are some daft ads out there, like the sexist nonsense shown here (and there are much worse examples we could have used but didn’t even want to show on our pages)?
Of course we are not advocating banning all alcohol advertising. But the industry knows full well that they make a lot of money out of people who probably should drink less. And as informed consumers, we should at least know about all the advertising and marketing tricks – dirty and otherwise – that are used on us. So that we won’t be fooled by the drinks industry.