Everyone wants to believe in happy endings. And that's what the alcohol industry is selling. Whatever your fairytale, your opportunity to be fun, desirable or sophisticated lies but a drop or two away. For older, savvy consumers the effects of alcohol advertising are well documented - prompting a switch between brands rather than increased consumption (a point I understand Joe and Dan agree with). But there are more grounds for thinking that it has an effect on the less discerning.
According to the research, our attitudes towards alcohol and corresponding consumption patterns are formed in our teens. Exposure to alcohol advertising in formative years (particularly via television) results in young people having a greater knowledge about alcohol slogans and brands, more favourable beliefs about drinking, increased intentions to drink as an adult and increased underage drinking. A number of institutions suggest this correlation is borne out in the research undertaken since New Zealand relaxed its alcohol advertising laws in 1992. They point to the fact, amongst others, that alcohol consumption has more than doubled amongst our 14-17 year olds since that time.
But is further regulation of alcohol advertising the answer? As Dan
notes, the ASA's Code for Advertising Liquor is already quite detailed and fairly restrictive. Should we consider, as Sarah
suggests, banning alcohol advertising altogether? Despite a ban being the favoured policy approach in a number of countries, the likely effectiveness of that proposed measure suggests that the answer to Sarah’s
question should be no.
Traditional alcohol advertising appears to be but one of the many factors that encourage young people to consume alcohol - and not even an especially important one. Young people seem much more likely to be influenced, for example, by the billions of dollars spent by the alcohol industry sponsoring cultural and sporting events - events at which youth are primed to have a good time and enjoy themselves (usually with a choice beverage in hand). In New Zealand, those events include "Jim Beam Homegrown" or the Big Day Out, sponsored by Jim Beam, Smirnoff and Jagermeister.
The relationship between alcohol and sport is perhaps one of the alcohol industry's greatest achievements to date. Although alcohol consumption impairs athletic performance, the association promotes the idea that alcohol consumption is healthy (it must be if our top athletes are doing it, right?), and attaches to alcohol the attributes of success, mateship and loyalty. Our national sporting icons, the All Blacks, are sponsored by Steinlager. New Zealand's Super 15 teams are sponsored by Speights, Waikato Draught and Tui. International teams are similarly branded with Bundaberg Rum, Famous Grouse and Brains, competing in tournaments such as the Heineken Cup at stadiums or grounds named for brands of alcohol. Nor is sponsorship isolated to rugby. Cricket, rugby league, AFL, football, golf, Formula One racing and NASCAR teams are all beneficiaries of the alcohol industry's largesse. To watch or attend a sporting fixture or cultural event in New Zealand is to be saturated with the alcohol
industry's messaging - circumventing many of the restrictions which are, ostensibly, in place to protect youth.
And it's not only sports or music festival sponsorship that circumvents the guidelines. Pop culture is perhaps the best advertisement for the alcohol industry. Movies,television shows and music lyrics sanction, encourage and glorify consumption of the "devil's water". Whether it’s the antics of a group of guys in Las Vegas (in the imaginatively entitled movie "The Hangover"), Ke$ha washing her teeth with a "bottle o' Jack", or less overt displays of alcohol consumption, the messages about alcohol are consistently positive. Pop culture – indeed culture generally – is likely to have much more of an influence on young people than traditional TV, radio or billboard advertising.But culture obviously (and thankfully!) cannot be controlled by regulators in Wellington.
So I think tightening restrictions on alcohol advertising even further would be largely pointless. I’m not suggesting we abandon attempts to influence young people altogether when it comes to alcohol. But we need to be realistic about the factors which feature most in young people’s alcohol-related decision making. Most agree, for instance - even the anti-alcohol lobby – that it is futile to consider alcohol advertising in isolation. Rather, price, distribution, and point of sale activity all appear to contribute more to alcohol consumption by young people than traditional advertising ever could. I suggest that
should be our focus.