The alcohol industry spends more than $4 billion each year marketing its products. Underage youth receive substantial exposure to this marketing, and multiple longitudinal studies have correlated this exposure with greater likelihood of drinking, or if young people have already initiated alcohol use, drinking more. Reducing the impact of alcohol marketing on young people is an important public health goal since underage drinking is a significant contributor to youth alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes and other forms of injury, violence, suicide, and problems associated with school and family.
State public health departments in California, Massachusetts, and Florida have made crucial strides in reducing underage smoking rates in their states by sponsoring tobacco counter-advertising campaigns.Research indicates that this approach should also be used as part of a comprehensive public health strategy to reduce underage drinking. However, in the case of alcohol, few experiments in counter-advertising have been carried out. Alcohol-specific media literacy is another strategy that has shown promise, but it is expensive to implement and has not been tested on a broad scale.
The appeal of alcohol to underage youth can also be limited by reducing youth exposure to alcohol advertising and marketing. The Federal Trade Commission has issued a series of reports on the topic and has encouraged voluntary action on the part of the alcohol industry. In response, alcohol marketers have made some limited reforms in their voluntary codes. However, these revisions fall far short of recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences, state attorneys general, and other scientific and advocacy organizations. In the last decade, while youth exposure to alcohol advertising has declined in magazines, it has increased substantially on television, growing at a pace faster than the exposure of adults age 21 and above and young adults ages 21 to 34.
Alcohol advertising regulation can apply to measured and unmeasured media. Measured media encompass traditional forms of advertising—electronic media (radio and television), outdoor billboards and signs, and print (magazines and newspapers). Regulation of these media can be directed at either the advertisement’s content or its placement. Content regulation addresses which images and statements the ad can carry, and placement regulation addresses where the ad can be shown to the public.
Unmeasured media include nontraditional venues for promoting a product: Internet marketing, consumer contests, prizes, giveaways, product placement in movies and television shows, novelties and other consumer items (e.g., logos on T-shirts), and sponsorships of concerts, sporting events, and other forms of entertainment and celebrations. These marketing venues and strategies are part of a dramatic shift in advertising strategy, termed branding, where the advertiser establishes an emotional connection between the brand and the targeted audience. The brand becomes embedded in the audience’s experience, cultural icons, and values. Content and placement therefore merge, and, to be effective, regulation must address both variables concurrently. The alcohol industry’s increasing reliance on unmeasured media strategies reflects a general trend within the consumer products and marketing industries and creates new challenges for regulators and public health advocates, particularly given the appeal of new media to youth.