prohibition is a moribund idea, a strong, well-organized anti-alcohol movement marches on. Its strength lies in dozens of church, health, consumer, and citizens’ groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” or MADD. MADD was founded in 1980 to combat problems related to drunk driving. Since its founding, MADD has expanded its mission and vision to include issues like underage drinking and drugged driving. MADD has been instrumental in influencing state governments to raise the legal drinking age to 21 in almost all parts of the United States, and to lowering the legal blood alcohol content for driving and operating equipment. Moreover, MADD believes that advertising alcohol should be banned and their reasoning is founded on four core ideas. Because alcohol advertising targets the most vulnerable populations such as underage drinkers, encourages greater consumption of the product, and sells false beliefs, lawmakers could consider curtailing the entire practice of alcohol advertising. Unfortunately, banning alcohol advertisements is not constitutional and therefore a middle ground solution is more feasible. Therefore, the best way to target the ultimate goal of reducing harm and minimizing underage and other types of harmful drinking in the community is through media literacy, education, and strong controls on the content, placement and substance of the entire marketing campaign.
Empirical evidence and theoretical viewpoints help to clarify the reasons why alcohol advertising should be curtailed. One theory is that “alcohol advertising that reaches children and young adults helps lead them to drink for the first time — or, if they’re experienced underage drinkers, to drink more,” (Worland, 2015). Empirical evidence supports this stance, demonstrating “that alcohol ads can encourage young people to drink,” (MADD, 2015). If advertising did not work, the advertisers would not be spending as much money as they are peddling their products. However, Richards (2015) found that advertising has increased 400% over the last 40 years but the ads have had “little impact on how much wine, beer or liquor people consume,” (p. 1). Instead, advertising steers brand choices. This is nevertheless an important issue. If advertising does have an impact on consumer behavior, and enough so to influence brand choices at the very least, then it is clear that advertising alcohol to young people programs them at a young age to purchase certain products based on the way those products are presented in the advertisements. Studies substantiated by MADD (2015) have shown that “the brands of alcohol popular among underage drinkers are the same ones most heavily advertised in magazines read by youth.” Young people are vulnerable to the media messages they receive, which is why it is generally unacceptable to target young people in alcohol advertising.
An anecdote helps to illustrate some of the ways alcohol advertising can be curtailed in accordance with the goals and values of MADD, without running into legal or constitutional problems. I knew a boy in high school who used to only drink “MGD,” or Miller Genuine Draft. Until recently, I did not understand why he always preferred that exact brand. Then later I realized that whenever we watched the football games, there were advertisements for MGD. When I started learning about the power of advertising to influence consumer choices, I realized that this boy had been completely duped. He had been sold the media message that MGD would make him strong and sexy. Unfortunately, he died in a car accident with a drunk friend at the wheel and this is why I believe in the core tenets of the MADD organization. Moreover, MADD is not alone in their point-of-view. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC, 2013) claims “alcohol ads typically associate a brand with cool, sexy people and a fun activity.” Whereas some brands of alcohol target an older or wealthier demographic, such as single malt Scotch, the mass market brands of beer and alco-pops are targeted to young people. The advertisements themselves depict good looking people having fun at parties with other beautiful people. They depict men and women hooking up, kissing, dancing, and generally having a good time, and it is suggested that the good time is due in part to the alcohol they are consuming. Because many young people experiment with alcohol and drugs, the advertising reinforces what they may already falsely believe.
There have been numerous attempts to limit alcohol advertising, rather than squelch the ads altogether. The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (2015) has made it so that “alcohol ads must not be directed at people under 18 or contain anything that is likely to appeal to them by reflecting youth culture or by linking alcohol with irresponsible behavior, social success or sexual attractiveness.” The FCC (2013) advocates media literacy programs in schools and urges parents to teach children media literacy. Media literacy is a logical response to the problem of targeted alcohol advertisements, because media literacy can help young people see through the faAade of all advertisements they see and not just those for alcohol. Already, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (2015) takes a strong stance against “false and misleading” ads, but it “does not require alcohol beverage advertisements to be approved prior to appearing in print or broadcast.” Therefore, it is up to the parents and community leaders to help empower youth to make healthy choices for themselves.
Alcohol advertising is an unfortunately common practice and one that is unlikely to go away in a nation that protects freedom of speech. However, there are distinct ways of curtailing alcohol advertising, especially ads that target the most vulnerable consumers like young people. One of the best ways of preventing alcohol-related advertising to reach the hearts and minds of young people is media literacy. Another is ensuring that advertisements do not specifically sell the body image, lifestyle, or sexuality fantasies that some brands tout. With a combination of practices, the goals of MADD and other well-meaning groups can be fulfilled.
Advertising Standards Authority (2015). Alcohol advertising.
“Alcohol Advertising,” (n.d.). Document.
Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (2015). Alcohol beverage advertising. TTB.gov. Retrieved online: http://www.ttb.gov/advertising/alcohol-beverage.shtml
Federal Trade Commission (FCC, 2013). Alcohol adverting. Retrieved online: http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0391-alcohol-advertising
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (2015). Effects of alcohol ads on our teens. Retrieved online: http://www.madd.org/blog/2014/july/effects-of-alcohol-ads.html
Richards, K. (2015). Alcohol ads increased by 400% over 40 years, but Americans aren’t drinking more. AdWeek. 25 March, 2015.
Worland, J. (2015). Here’s what alcohol advertising does to kids. Time. 19 Jan, 2015. Retrieved online: http://time.com/3672188/alcohol-advertising-kids/
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