Alcohol marketing and young people 

Alcohol is one of the most heavily marketed products with the annual spend on alcohol marketing conservatively estimated at €115m in Ireland alone. 

Young people are an important market for the alcohol industry. 

Comprehensive research now clearly tells us that 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. 

In short, children, and younger people, navigate a tsunami of alcohol promotion every day that ensures messages about drinking are increasingly normalised. 

Although Ireland’s Public Health Alcohol Act does endeavour to restrict alcohol advertising to young people, if we are serious about protecting children, recently enacted measures must only be considered a first step. 

Areas such as alcohol sponsorship of sport and culture or adequate controls on exposure to digital promotion have not been developed. Alcohol product sponsorship especially within sport and culture, so attractive to young people, must be seen as a particularly insidious form of marketing as it enables a product to cultivate a ‘brand’ relationship via the cherished human experiences and emotions that sports arouse in us. 


Social, digital, ubiquitous – the changing landscape of marketing to young people 

As young people’s lives are now entwined with the digital world, this is now where marketers target them. 

Advertising is no longer just about billboards and TV or newspaper ads, but is a highly sophisticated integrated marketing communications mix of placement, celebrity endorsements, product sponsorship of sports and culture – messages targeted and delivered through a variety of media channels at any time of the day or night. 

Research has demonstrated that because social media sites have become so popular and pervasive with young people, they have also become an important aspect of the alcohol industry’s multi-platform marketing strategies and are creating ‘intoxigenic digital spaces’ where young people learn about alcohol and underage drinking is normalised. 

The rapid growth in the use of social networking technologies is raising new issues regarding alcohol marketing, as well as potential impacts on alcohol cultures more generally.  

Young people are also being exposed to often intensive and novel forms of alcohol marketing and are coaxed into becoming the messenger for the alcohol industry by routinely tell and re-tell drinking stories online and sharing images depicting drinking. 

Adolescent psychological and neurobiological researchers have pointed out that digital marketing purposefully evokes emotional arousal knowing that this will spur young people on to make poor decisions. 


What to do? 

The genie is already out of the bottle when it comes digital alcohol marketing and young people. As researchers have noted, young people are the heaviest users of social media, and alcohol marketers are exploiting the resulting opportunities with enormous energy, undermining conventional public health policies, approaches and tools for reducing population-level alcohol consumption. 

Given this landscape, it is unsurprising that there some within public health advocates who seek consideration for a total ban on most or all forms of alcohol marketing. 

The World Health Organisation has also called for a complete ban on alcohol advertising. Some countries are already doing this. For example in countries such as Norway, Sweden Finland and Russia, it is prohibited – to varying degrees – to have any form of mass communication on alcohol across media for example in printed newspapers, films, radio, television, in digital and mobile communications. Sweden, Norway and Finland also have strong government regulatory bodies, imposing sanctions when law and regulations have been violated. 

In the absence of a universal approach, it is imperative that control and regulation of alcohol advertising is strong, transparent, accountable and fit for the 21st century. 

Alcohol Action Ireland recommends that all the provisions of the Public Health Alcohol Act 2018 are implemented with urgency. The Act makes provision for a review after three years (Section 21) and AAI is advocating that this review will seek further sanction on curbing the marketing of alcohol.