How marketing shapes alcohol consumption

Marketing possesses a unique magic – the power to mould perceptions, sway choices, and even shape cultures. Some of the most iconic advertisements in history have been crafted for various alcoholic beverages. Yet, with alcohol addiction and abuse representing significant concerns in the UK and across the globe, it raises the question: to what extent do alcohol marketing strategies influence our consumption?

The glamourisation of alcohol

While it may sound counterintuitive, the aim of alcohol marketing is rarely about the product itself. Instead, many marketing campaigns are designed to portray a glamorous lifestyle or unmissable experience that the audience will come to associate with a particular drink. This may be achieved through celebrities chinking champagne glasses, familiar scenes of the lads in the pub or an idyllic image of an aged whiskey being sipped by the fireplace.

In fact, some of the most successful alcohol adverts have little mention of the drink they are promoting. One of the best examples is the famous Guinness surfing advert. First launched in 1999, it featured black-and-white footage of Polynesian men surfing with an intense musical soundtrack and spoken references to the novel Moby Dick. The advert is almost two minutes long, yet it is not until the end that the image of a pint of Guinness and the now-famous slogan “Good things come to those who wait” appear. Despite this, the advert is considered one of the best and was responsible for a 12% increase in Guinness sales.

Demographic targeting

Another way that alcohol brands and marketers also maximise the impact of their advertising is by targeting specific demographics. For example, many beer brands target men by sponsoring sporting events or comedic advertising. One highly successful campaign that followed this strategy was the “No Nonsense” series of John Smith’s adverts featuring Peter Kay in the early 2000s. These adverts had Kay appearing in various skits, getting into trouble with his girlfriend, drinking beer at halftime during a football match and having run-ins with his mother-in-law. While John Smith’s was already a successful brand, the adverts introduced a new predominantly lager-drinking generation to bitter and won several awards.

While the desire to attract new demographics isn’t inherently problematic, the concern arises when ‘new demographics’ equates to ‘young people.’ Alcohol companies often argue that their marketing is only designed to retain adult consumers, not entice younger ones. However, this often contradicts reality. For instance, the original brief for the Guinness surfing advert stated that the drink’s extensive pour time should not be mentioned because it could be “a potential barrier to a younger demographic.” Additionally, the proliferation of alcopops featuring fruity flavours, vibrant packaging, and catchy names like WKD and Smirnoff Ice raises doubts about the assertion that young people are not intentionally targeted.

Social media marketing

In today’s digital age, social media platforms are not just communication tools; they’re powerful advertising channels. The rise of influencers, sponsored content and viral challenges related to alcohol can subtly push consumption norms. Alcohol marketing on social media is a particular area of concern because these platforms often cater to a younger audience and are far harder to regulate than television or other traditional media forms.

This issue was highlighted in 2017 when Diageo ran an advert for Captain Morgan’s rum on Snapchat that the UK’s advertising watchdog banned for specifically targeting underage people. While Diageo initially refuted the findings, the company ultimately suspended advertising on the platform globally.

Social media icons

Snapchat’s alcohol advertising policy states that:

“Ads for alcohol products must be age-targeted to at least 18+, or the applicable minimum drinking age in the country to which you are advertising.”

However, while this sounds good, the jury is still out on Snapchat’s ability and willingness to enforce its rules. This enforcement is particularly important as digital platforms are now second only to television for alcohol advertising distribution.

Distribution of alcohol advertising spending worldwide in 2020 by medium
Image source: Statista

UK alcohol marketing regulations

In the UK, specific rules are set to control how alcohol is advertised to the public. These rules are managed by several statutory and non-statutory bodies, including:

Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is the primary regulatory body responsible for ensuring that advertisements, including those for alcohol, adhere to specific rules to promote responsible and safe advertising practices. ASA has established guidelines prohibiting alcohol ads from associating alcohol with seductive behaviour, promoting excessive drinking, or implying that alcohol can enhance personal qualities or achievements. Additionally, ASA’s rules restrict alcohol advertisements from targeting individuals under 18. Notably, ASA recently banned Diageo’s Captain Morgan’s advertisements on Snapchat.

Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP)

CAP and BCAP are responsible for writing the advertising codes. They ensure that advertisements across different media adhere to the stringent rules outlined in the CAP and BCAP codes, aiming for responsible advertising that does not mislead, harm or offend audiences.

The Portman Group

This is an association of alcohol beverage producers in the UK responsible for promoting responsible marketing through self-regulation. Their Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging, and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks seeks to ensure that drinks are packaged and promoted responsibly and in a way that does not appeal to under-18s or encourage irresponsible consumption.

Alcohol Concern

Though not a regulatory body, Alcohol Concern plays a crucial role in shaping the discourse around alcohol advertising. They continuously advocate for stricter regulations with the ultimate goal of a comprehensive ban on alcohol advertising.

Alcohol ban sign

UK vs global regulation

In the face of the societal impact of alcohol addiction and abuse, different countries have varying degrees of regulation around alcohol marketing.

United States…

The US adopts a comparatively flexible approach, where self-regulation is predominant. The industry follows guidelines set by bodies like the Distilled Spirits Council, which emphasise responsible advertising. However, critics argue that self-regulation may not be as effective in preventing irresponsible advertising and are calling for more government action.

Asia-Pacific Region…

In the Asia-Pacific region, the approach varies widely. Countries like Thailand have strict regulations with pictorial health warnings mandated on advertisements and restrictions on the size of names, logos and trademarks in advertising materials. Japan and Korea, on the other hand, rely significantly on self-regulation by the industry, with alcohol advertising widespread and few real restrictions on how or where alcohol can be portrayed.

Nordic countries…

Nordic countries such as Norway and Sweden have adopted stringent regulations, with Norway imposing a complete ban on alcohol advertising in 1975. Sweden, too, imposes strict limitations, restricting adverts that target young people or associate alcohol with a particular lifestyle. Compared to the UK, these nations adopt a stricter approach, relying less on self-regulation and more on legislated restrictions.

Nordic country flags

Counter marketing strategies

In the UK, counter marketing strategies play a vital role in mitigating the adverse impacts of the glamourised portrayal of alcohol present in mainstream marketing. The government and various organisations, such as Drink Aware, have launched educational campaigns emphasising the health risks associated with excessive drinking, including alcoholism and higher accident rates. One notable example is the Know Your Limits campaign, which vividly illustrates how quickly a night of excessive drinking can become a life-changing disaster.

The healthcare and alcohol rehab sectors, including the NHS, private hospitals, and organisations like UKAT, collaborate to educate the public about the dangers of alcohol addiction and abuse. UKAT, in particular, runs a school awareness programme where addiction experts engage with educators and students to address alcohol-related issues, emphasising the importance of education, especially for young people.

Final thoughts

While counter marketing strategies can be very effective, their budgets pale compared to those of the alcohol industry. This is why effective government regulation needs to be at the forefront of the battle, something the WHO refers to as a ‘best buy’ in reducing alcohol-related harm. While alcohol advertising can be funny, glamorous, and emotionally impactful, it is crucial to remember that irresponsible and compulsive drinking can lead to health complications, alcoholism, and other serious societal issues.

If you have been impacted by anything you read in this article or need alcohol detox or alcohol rehab services, contact us at Primrose Lodge today.

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