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How Alcohol Ads Target Kids

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  • Alcohol marketers use various methods to target their ads to young people. Alcohol ads target kids by showing youthful men and women having a fun and exciting time while drinking.
  • Each year, almost 5,000 deaths are attributed to underage drinking, with alcohol associated with motor vehicle crashes, homicides and suicides.
  • Social media ads are the latest tool that alcohol companies are using to encourage young people to engage in underage drinking. 

Parents might do their best to shield their kids from alcohol-related advertising, but alcohol marketers are doing their best to reach them anyway. A 2012 study discovered that the content of alcohol ads in magazines is more likely to violate industry guidelines if the ads appear in a magazine with sizable youth readership. Today, alcohol marketers are still targeting underage drinkers, as new research has linked social media ads with a surge in underage drinking.

The 2012 study, which was done by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, found that ads in magazines with a substantial youth readership (15% or more) frequently showed alcohol being consumed in an irresponsible manner. Examples included showing alcohol consumption near or on bodies of water, encouraging overconsumption and providing messages supportive of alcohol addiction. In addition, nearly 1 in 5 ad occurrences contained sexual connotations or sexual objectification.

"The bottom line here is that youth are getting hit repeatedly by ads for spirits and beer in magazines geared towards their age demographic," said study co-author David Jernigan, director of CAMY. "As at least 14 studies have found that the more young people are exposed to alcohol advertising and marketing, the more likely they are to drink or, if already drinking, to drink more, this report should serve as a wake-up call to parents and everyone else concerned about the health of young people."

The researchers examined 1,261 ads for alcopops, beer, spirits or wine that appeared more than 2,500 times in 11 different magazines that have or are likely to have disproportionately youthful readerships. They analyzed the ads for different risk codes: injury content, overconsumption content, addiction content, sex-related content and violation of industry guidelines. This latter category refers to the voluntary codes of good marketing practice administered by alcohol industry trade associations. Examples of code violations include appearing to target a primarily underage audience, highlighting the high alcohol content of a product and portraying alcohol consumption in conjunction with activities requiring a high degree of alertness or coordination, such as swimming.

According to CAMY, alcohol is responsible for 4,700 deaths per year among people under 21 and is associated with the three leading causes of death among youth: motor vehicle crashes, homicide and suicide.

Lisa Hawkins, vice president of public affairs at the Distilled Spirits Council, the national trade association representing the leading distillers in the U.S., said the research is inaccurate.

"This latest advocacy research by David Jernigan once again calls into question the $4 million grant given to CAMY by the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]," Hawkins said. "A study, which characterizes all advertisements that depict someone holding or being handed an alcohol beverage near a body of water as 'risky content' defies common sense. This study is just another example of CAMY’s biased methodology to fit its preconceived notions."

"CDC's funding would be better spent on evidence-based programs to reduce underage drinking versus a subjective review of magazine ads that are anywhere from nearly 5 to 9 years old, which is not relevant to today's marketplace," she said.

"What is relevant is that alcohol consumption and binge drinking rates among eighth, 10th and 12th graders have continued their long-term decline, reaching historically low levels, according to federal government data," Hawkins added. "Simply put, CAMY’s claim that alcohol advertising is causing teens to drink is disproved by the federal government data and unsupported by the body of scientific literature."

The research was funded by grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy and was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

In 2018 and 2020, studies have linked the prevalence of underage drinking to screen time. As tweens and teens are exposed to images of young adults drinking, they are at greater risk of consuming alcohol before being of legal age, the studies found. In addition, the research showed that while browsing their social media feeds, young people are frequently exposed to ads displaying alcohol in a positive manner.

The 2018 study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, found that users on Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram had a greater likelihood of reporting underage alcohol consumption and developing risky drinking behavior. Young people in the study engaged with alcohol marketers and their products in some manner, including viewing posts, sharing links or leaving comments. When alcohol ads target kids, these young people's predisposition to alcohol problems later in life is much greater, according to the study.

Moreover, a 2020 study published in the journal Preventive Medicine demonstrated the way alcohol companies are normalizing alcohol consumption among young people. Alcohol marketers have found ways to create social norms through social media ads targeting kids. Drinking is shown in a positive manner and never depicted negatively, the study found. Because young people are more vulnerable to this kind of messaging than older adults are, they are more engaged when frequently showed alcohol ads online. More time spent online is connected directly to a higher chance of drinking before the legal age, according to the study.

The good news is that social media sites have made restrictions on the type of content allowed by alcohol companies. Alcohol marketers are not permitted to display ads blatantly targeting kids. However, many alcohol companies get around these guidelines by stating the ads are fun and adventurous rather than promoting adolescent drinking.

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