Alcohol Policy UK, Monday, May 20, 2019

In this guest post, Nathan Critchlow, a researcher at the Institute for Social Marketing, discusses findings from recent research on alcohol marketing exposure and drinking amongst young people, and the UK policy context.

Until recently, research exploring how much alcohol marketing young people in the UK see has been limited to either those over the minimum legal purchasing age or adolescents in Scotland. This has created important gaps in the evidence, which also has implications for informing policy need and prioritisation. In response, the Cancer Policy Research Centre at Cancer Research UK and the Institute for Social Marketing at the University of Stirling conducted the first assessment of alcohol marketing exposure among a sample of 11-19 year olds from across the UK.

Nathan Critchlow will be one of the keynote speakers at the conference ‘Digital Marketing in the Spotlight, 19th September 2019, Amsterdam.

Where do young people see alcohol marketing?

We asked young people how often in the past month, if at all, they had seen alcohol marketing through nine marketing channels, ranging from traditional advertising (e.g. print press or television), alternative marketing opportunities (e.g. sponsorship and competitions), and retail marketing (e.g. price offers). We also asked whether they owned any alcohol brand merchandise, and whether they had participated with five forms of alcohol marketing on social media in the past month. You can find more details in our two papers here and here, both of which are open access.

We found that 82% of young people recalled seeing at least one form of alcohol marketing in the month preceding the survey. The most frequently recalled sources of exposure were television adverts, celebrity endorsement, and special offers. More than a third reported awareness of alcohol marketing at least weekly through these channels and around one-in-ten reported awareness daily or almost daily. We also found that almost one-in-five young people reported owning a form of alcohol branded merchandise (e.g. clothing).

Concerning digital marketing, over a quarter of young people had seen alcohol marketing on social media at least weekly, and around one-in-twenty recalled seeing it daily or almost daily in the past month. Around one-in-ten had also participated with alcohol marketing on social media, such as liking and alcohol brand on social media or searching from drinks adverts on YouTube.

Media reporting of the research showed a particular interest in the celebrity endorsement angle. This included headlines such as “Fancy a Becks!” (The Sun) and articles in other newspapers highlighting brands linked to Mila Kunis, Jean Claude Van Damme, and Ryan Reynolds, to name a few. It is always great to see your research picking up media interest, but this is also my opportunity to reiterate an important point often missed in those articles. Marketing represents a complex and sophisticated range of activities which combine to produce powerful marketing campaigns. It appears on every step of the journey from production to pour. Celebrity endorsement is part of that, but our results also show exposure through eight other forms of marketing.  

What is the association between alcohol marketing and consumption?

We asked young people whether they had consumed alcohol before and, if not, whether they were susceptible to start drinking in the next year. In current drinkers, we also used a screening tool (AUDIT-C) to measure consumption patterns and to classify potential higher-risk drinking. We also tested young people’s knowledge of alcohol brands by showing them some logos with the names removed, and asking them to identify the missing brand name. 

In current drinkers, higher awareness of alcohol marketing and ownership of alcohol branded merchandise was associated with increased alcohol consumption and higher risk drinking. Among current drinkers, participation with alcohol marketing on social media was also associated higher-risk drinking. In young people who had never consumed alcohol, ownership of branded merchandise was associated susceptibility. Among all young people, greater awareness of alcohol marketing was associated with increased brand identification.

Alcohol-related attitudes and consumption can be shaped by a range of factors, such as individual experience and social influences. Nevertheless, we found that the association between alcohol marketing and alcohol-related outcomes remained even taking into account various factors such as parental and peer consumption and perceived acceptability of consumption. This was also true for the association between owning branded merchandise and susceptibility in never-drinkers.

As we only measured the link between marketing and consumption at a single time point, our data cannot show that marketing exposure ‘causes’ alcohol consumption. Nevertheless, marketing operates on more sophisticated levels than just initiating a behaviour. Other goals include increasing market share, ‘brand switching’, or reinforcing behaviours established through non-commercial determinants. How do we interpret this? Well, the associations found do suggest that marketing must play some role, but to what extent this is causal effect is a question for longitudinal research, of which you can read excellent summaries of previous research here and here.

What is the current policy context for alcohol marketing in the UK?

Alcohol marketing policy in the UK continues to be an intense topic of debate, characterised by two polarised perspectives. On one hand, both the Alcohol Health Alliance and Alcohol Focus Scotland, among others, have called for changes to the current self-regulatory approach. On the other hand, sections of the alcohol industry argue the current system is fit for purpose.

The last Alcohol Strategy from the Westminster, published a while ago in 2012, acknowledged a link between alcohol advertising and young people’s consumption, but concluded that heavy restrictions were not a proportionate response. Instead, the strategy restated confidence in the existing self-regulatory approach. There have been suggestions that a new alcohol strategy for the UK is being developed, but the timelines and to what extent marketing will feature are unknown. The UK Government are also currently consulting on restrictions for marketing of food and drinks high in fat, salt, and sugar, which perhaps suggests a greater emphasis on how commercial activities shape youth health. 

In Scotland, the latest Alcohol Framework, published in November 2018, adopts a more proactive approach. This includes plans to press the UK Government for a watershed on alcohol advertising on television and cinema – powers to do so are not devolved – and plans to consult on possible mandatory restrictions that are within Scottish Government control.

Further afield, but relevant to the UK, there have been larger proposed changes to alcohol marketing in the Republic of Ireland, though the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill. This will include limiting advertising to factual information about a product (i.e. no lifestyle messages), bans on alcohol advertising in youth areas or on public transport, restrictions on size and placement in the print press, no sponsorship for events aimed at young people, and bans on cinema advertising if the film is not classified for 18s and over. You can read more about the details here. The measures will be phased in over the coming years; no doubt many will be following the implementation and evaluation closely.

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