What is alcohol marketing?

Advertising works by creating positive expectancies and beliefs about a product[i]. Although advertising in traditional media including TV, outdoor, print and radio is the most obvious form of alcohol marketing, it is actually a small part of any marketing strategy. In order to promote consumption of their products and brands, the alcohol industry uses a range of strategies – these include product design and packaging, placement of the brand and product in films, supermarket aisles and other channels of communication and pricing.

Promotion raises awareness among the target market and includes sponsorship of sports, of music and cultural events as well as branded merchandise such as sports jerseys. Alcohol marketing is prevalent in digital worlds and social media – one in three Irish 16 and 17-year-olds said they had seen an ad or pop-up for an alcohol product on their social networking page[ii].

  What is the aim of alcohol marketing?

The aim of alcohol marketing is to increase sales of an alcohol brand, whether by encouraging current drinkers to buy more or by recruiting new customers. In addition to competing with each other for market share, alcohol companies also use marketing to create new markets such as those in developing countries.

Alcohol marketing can shape culture by creating and sustaining expectations and norms about how to achieve social, sporting or sexual success, how to celebrate, how to relax and how to belong. According to the British Medical Association[iii] “the cumulative effect of this promotion is to reinforce and exaggerate strong pro-alcohol social norms”.

How do we know alcohol marketing has an impact?

Alcohol marketing has a particular impact on children and young people. Alcohol marketing including advertising, sponsorship and other forms of promotion, increases the likelihood that adolescents will start to use alcohol, and to drink more if they are already using alcohol[iv]. A number of studies have shown that children who own alcohol branded merchandise are more likely to start drinking, as are children who are regularly exposed to point-of-sale alcohol advertising in grocery stores[v].

The marketing messages of the drinks industry reach children as young as 10 and 11 years of age. A study of brand and logo recognition by primary school children in Wales found that 79% of children were aware Carlsberg is an alcoholic drink, a much higher rate of recognition compared to recognition of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream (74%) and Mr Kipling cakes (41%) as types of food[vi].

The same study cites research showing the earlier people become aware of brands, the more likely they are to use them throughout their lives, suggesting establishing early alcohol brand loyalty benefits alcohol companies as future drinkers are more likely to chose their brand than another. It’s also worth asking why the alcohol industry would invest so heavily in marketing if it did not work to increase alcohol sales? In 2010, €44m was spent on alcohol advertising alone in Ireland[vii]. It is estimated that the alcohol sector invests about €25 million on sponsorship in Ireland[viii].

The World Health Organisation[ix] states that “advertisements have a particular impact in promoting a more positive attitude to drinking among young people” and recommends restricting the volume and content of alcohol marketing communications as a way of reducing alcohol-related harm.

Why does alcohol marketing matter?

  • It matters because alcohol marketing influences children and young people to drink earlier and to drink more
  • It matters because young people’s alcohol use has a direct effect on their health, development and welfare
  • It matters because young people are more vulnerable than adults to the effects of alcohol use, their drinking carrying an increased risk of harm

What would make a difference to reduce the impact of alcohol marketing on children and young people?

Alcohol marketing in Ireland is a poorly regulated area and the current system of self-regulation is ineffective in protecting children and young people from these sophisticated and powerful influences on their drinking expectations and behaviours.

We need legislation that addresses all elements of the marketing mix. The Steering Group Report on a National Substance Misuse Strategy[x] recommended the introduction of statutory codes and legislation which would:

  • Phase out drinks industry sponsorship of sport and other large public events by 2016
  • Reduce the volume, content and placement of all advertising in all media
  • Introduce a 9 pm watershed for alcohol advertising on radio and television
  • Ban outdoor advertising

The Report also recommends commencing Section 9 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act, which would regulate the marketing of alcohol through product placement alongside other beverages and foods in mixed trade premises such as supermarkets. In relation to pricing, the Report recommends increasing the price of alcohol through the introduction of legislation on minimum pricing and through excise duty.

Click here to read Alcohol Action Ireland’s policy position on alcohol marketing.



[i] WHO (2012) Alcohol in the European Union

[ii] Behaviour and Attitudes (2010) Have We Bottled It? Survey commissioned by Alcohol Action Ireland

[iii] British Medical Association (2009) Under the Influence

[iv] 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 the longitudinal studies; Anderson, P. et al (2009)  Impact of Alcohol Advertising and Media Exposure on Adolescent Alcohol Use: A Systematic Review of Longitudinal Studies.  Alcohol and Alcoholism, pp.1-15, 2009

[v] WHO (2012) as above

[vi] Alcohol Concern Wales (2012) Making an Impression: Recognition of Alcohol Brands by Primary School Children

[vii] Irish Marketing Journal (April 2011, vol.37, no.4)

[viii] John Trainor, MD of Onside, a sponsorship consultancy, quoted in the Irish Marketing Journal (April 2011, vol.37, no.4)

[ix] WHO (2012) as above

[x] Steering Group Report on a National Substance Misuse Strategy (2012) Department of Health

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