Alcohol Advertising Targets Youth

Self-regulation in the alcohol advertising industry is producing ads reminiscent of “Joe Camel” which targets impressionable youth, according to Australian addiction scientists who call for stricter regulation of the ads (Fielder, Donovan, & Ouschan, 2009).

In the U.S., where alcohol advertising is also subject to self-regulation by the industry, more than 4,600 young people under the age of 21 died as a result of alcohol use each year. Past studies show that people who start drinking as adolescents have a higher risk of lifelong problematic drinking, ultimately perhaps necessitating a stay in alcohol rehab.

Alcohol Advertising Targets Youth

Other studies suggest that young people are more likely to drink when they’re exposed to more alcohol advertising. The Australian researchers found that adolescents saw nearly as many TV commercials for alcohol as people in the 18 to 24 age group. The researchers also pointed out that the most exposed alcohol ads include at least one element known to appeal to children and adolescents, such as pop music, animals, animated characters, and simple, humorous storylines.

The study examined the exposure of underage youth to alcohol TV commercials on free-to-air networks in five major Australian cities (Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, and Perth). Researchers looked at a total of 2,162 advertisements promoting 79 brands. The 30 most exposed ads were then analyzed for content elements that appealed to children and underage youth. A similar study in which UCLA researchers examined U.S. advertising data will be published in the October issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

What We Know

“Clearly self-regulation is not working to protect young people from exposure to alcohol advertising,” wrote Dr. David Jernigan, an alcohol policy and public health expert, in a commentary that appeared in Addiction journal (2009). “Ongoing monitoring and greater restriction on when these ads can air are needed to safeguard our youth.”
Australian researchers suggest several ways to reduce underage exposure to alcohol advertising:
  • Ban alcohol advertising during live sports broadcasts.
  • Further restrict the times at which alcohol commercials can be shown.
  • Ban animals and animal characters from alcohol advertising (with exceptions when an animal has traditionally been part of the brand’s logo).
Co-author Professor Donovan stated, “The marketing and communications industries are fully aware of execution elements that are attractive to children and young teens – that’s part of their job. It should not be part of their job to use that knowledge, or allow it to be used, in alcohol advertising that children and teens are exposed to.”

Where We Go From Here

Alcohol advertisements create problems for underage youth as well as individuals seeking alcohol recovery. Ads that promote alcohol appeal to the emotions. They may bypass rational thought and act as powerful triggers for relapse. Of course, one of the goals for being in alcohol treatment or alcohol rehab is to develop the ability to prevent triggers such as ads from leading to relapse. However, in early recovery, you may want to avoid watching television or have a plan for coping with what you are likely to view there.
Old Joe Camel voluntarily retired in 1997. Perhaps we’ll see tighter regulation in alcohol advertisements after this research and similar studies have been thoroughly disseminated.
Fielder L., Donovan R. J., Ouschan R. Exposure of children and adolescents to alcohol advertising on Australian metropolitan free-to-air television. Addiction 2009; 104: 1157-1165.
Jernigan D. H. Alcohol advertising regulation: where to from here? Addiction 2009; 104: 1166-1167.