independent advocate reducing alcohol harm

Alcohol marketing: protecting children

Alcohol marketing and young people

Alcohol is one of the most heavily marketed products on our shelves with a total market value of approximately €7.447 billion in Ireland each year. 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.[1]

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

Research carried out with young people found that there were “significant associations between awareness of, and involvement with, alcohol marketing and drinking behaviour and intentions to drink alcohol in the next year.” This led the researchers to conclude that “given these associations, our study suggests the need for a revision of alcohol policy: one limiting youth exposure to these seemingly ubiquitous marketing communications.”[2]

Another study found that children aged 13-15 had “sophisticated levels of awareness of alcohol, and alcohol products.” And that “much marketing activity featured content that appealed to young people and appeared to influence their well-developed brand attitudes.” This study led researchers to conclude that “it is clear that the current regulatory framework fails to adequately protect young people.”[3]

Although Ireland’s Public Health Alcohol Act does endeavour to restrict alcohol advertising to young people,[4] if we are serious about protecting children, the recently enacted measures must only be considered a first step, as areas such as alcohol sponsorship of sport and culture or adequate controls on exposure to digital promotion have not be 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 fostered within a rich pantheon of cherished human experience and emotions.


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

Young people are a primary target for alcohol advertisers – they are the future; famously described by an Irish business representative group, as those ‘who provide a lifetime income from responsible drinking’.

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.[5]

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. For example, research shows that digital marketing is more successful than traditional in reaching young adults and has a stronger association with increased frequency of binge drinking.[6]

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.[7]

Researchers contend that the advertising industry, in many instances led by highly resourced food and beverage marketers, is purposefully exploiting the special relationship that teenagers have with new media, with online marketing campaigns that create unprecedented intimacies between adolescents and the brands and products that now surround them.[8] 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.[9]

Research has further demonstrated that these ‘360-degree’ marketing strategies have created several avenues for young people to be exposed to, or involved with, alcohol marketing, and that this is associated with consumption and higher-risk drinking in current drinkers and susceptibility in those who never drank previously.[10] Given this weight of evidence, it is clear that young people are being exposed to extraordinary frequency of inappropriate content that were it being delivered to them through traditional forms of advertising, may fall foul of even self-regulatory guidance.


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,[11] undermining conventional public health policies, approaches and tools for reducing population-level alcohol consumption.[12]

Advertisers are using digital media to circumvent already weak and often self-regulatory measures[13], and given the rapidly changing digital landscape these techniques will surely only increase and evolve to be ever more sophisticated and enticing if action is not taken. Solutions then, must be radical and innovative.

The use of age confirmation portals to seemingly hinder accessing online sites to those who are 18 or over are ineffective. Alcohol brands are making young people themselves the messengers by encouraging user generated content and widespread sharing of messages.[14]

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.[15]

The World Health Organisation has also called for a complete ban on alcohol advertising.[16] 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.[17] 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 demand 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 we are keen that this review would, having evaluated the current controls, seek further sanction on curbing the marketing of alcohol.

[1] 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; Impact of alcohol advertising and media exposure on adolescent alcohol use: a systematic review of longitudinal studies,; The effect of alcohol advertising, marketing and portrayal on drinking behaviour in young people: systematic review of prospective cohort studies,

[2] Gordon R, Moodie C, Eadie D & Hastings G, Assessing the cumulative impact of alcohol marketing on young people’s drinking: Cross-sectional data findings.

[3] Gordon R, Moodie C, Eadie D & Hastings G (2010) Critical social marketing – The impact of alcohol marketing on youth drinking: Qualitative findings. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 15 (3), pp. 265-275.

[4] Measures enacted in November 2019 mean prohibiting alcohol advertising in or on public transport and within 200 metres of schools, or public playground; prohibiting alcohol advertising in cinemas with an 18 classification or in a licensed premises in a cinema; prohibiting alcohol promotion on children’s clothing.

[5] An exploration of alcohol advertising on social networking sites: an analysis of content, interactions and young people’s perspectives

[6] Critchlow N, Moodie C, Bauld L, Bonner A & Hastings G (2016) Awareness of, and participation with, digital alcohol marketing, and the association with frequency of high episodic drinking among young adults. Drugs: Education, Prevention, and Policy, 23 (4), pp. 328-336.

[7] Youth drinking cultures, social networking and alcohol marketing: implications for public health

[8] Interactive Food and Beverage Marketing: Targeting Adolescents in the Digital Age

Kathryn C.Montgomery, JeffChester,

[9] F. M. Leslie, L. J. Levine, S. E. Loughlin, and C. Pechmann, “Adolescents’ Psychological & Neurobiological Development: Implications for Digital Marketing.” See also: Pechmann, C., Levine L., Loughlin S., and Leslie F. (2005), “Impulsive and Self-Conscious: Adolescents’ Vulnerability to Advertising and Promotion,” Journal of Public Policy and Marketing 24 (2) 202-21.

[10] Critchlow N, MacKintosh AM, Thomas C, et al, Awareness of alcohol marketing, ownership of alcohol branded merchandise, and the association with alcohol consumption, higher-risk drinking, and drinking susceptibility in adolescents and young adults: a cross-sectional survey in the UKBMJ Open 2019;9:e025297. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2018-025297.

[11] Winpenny E, Patil S, Elliott MN, van Dijk LV, Hinrichs S, Marteau T, et al. Assessment of young people’s exposure to alcohol marketing in audiovisual and online media. Rand Corporation, 2012.

[12] Alcohol and social media: drinking and drunkenness while online

[13] Alcohol’s Getting a Bit More Social: When Alcohol Marketing Messages on Facebook Increase Young Adults’ Intentions to Imbibe; Kessler D. A. (2005), “Alcohol marketing and youth: the challenge for public health,” Journal of Public Health Policy 26 (3) 292-5; Alcohol Marketing on Twitter and Instagram: Evidence of Directly Advertising to Youth/Adolescents, Alcohol and Alcoholism, Volume 51, Issue 4, July/August 2016, 487–492.

[14] 19 Nicholls, J. (2012), ‘Everyday, everywhere: alcohol marketing and social media – current trends’, Alcohol and Alcoholism, 47(4), 486– 493 20 Lobstein, T., Landon, J., Thornton, N., & Jernigan, D. (2017), ‘The commercial use of digital media to market alcohol products: a narrative review’, Addiction, 112, 21–27 21 Winpenny, E. M., Marteau, T. M., & Nolte, E. (2013), ‘Exposure of children and adolescents to alcohol marketing on social media websites’, Alcohol and Alcoholism, 49(2), 154–159 22 Barry, A., Johnson, E., Rabre, A., Darville, G., Donovan, K., and Efunbumi, O. (2014), ‘Underage Access to Online Alcohol Marketing Content: A YouTube Case Study’, Alcohol and Alcoholism, 50: 1, pp. 89–94

[15] Casswell S, Maxwell A, Regulation of alcohol marketing: a global view. J Public Health Policy. 2005 Sep; 26(3):343-58. Anderson, P. (2009, April 1). Is it time to ban alcohol advertising?; Casswell and Thamarangsi, 2009, Reducing harm from alcohol: call to action, also: BMA, Under the influence The damaging effect of alcohol marketing on young people.

[16] World Health Organisation (2017). ‘Tackling NCDs: ‘Best buys’ and other recommended interventions for the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases’

[17] For a breakdown of laws in different jurisdictions see: Alcohol Focus, Promoting good health from childhood Appendix three: