Alcohol Marketing and Its Impact on Underage Drinking


Sober Recovery Expert Author

Although drinking by persons under the age of 21 is illegal in the U.S., government data reveals that 12 to 20 year-olds drink 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the country. A growing body of research backs this data, suggesting that exposure to alcohol marketing affects adolescent drinking behavior. A recent internet survey conducted by John Hopkins School of Public Health (JHSPH) sheds even more light on adolescent drinking influencers and habits.

An Evident Correlation

The April 2015 study, which had more than 1000 participants, reveals that about one in three underage drinkers chose certain brands of alcohol based on how they are marketed. “Alcohol advertisements, media portrayals of alcohol use and celebrity endorsements play a significant role in alcohol brand selection among young people," says lead study author Craig Ross, PhD, a consultant to the JHSPH’s Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth. The study also cites that adolescents who reported being influenced by alcohol marketing, movies or other media are more likely to suffer negative consequences than those who said they selected their alcohol brand based on other factors.

More and more alcohol companies are catering to adolescent trends in their marketing strategy and the effects are clear.

In a separate study on the youth’s response to alcohol advertising, researchers found evidence that “underage youth are drawn to music, animals, people characters, story and humor in alcohol advertising.” A long-term national study has also concluded that every ad a young person has ever seen contributes to a 1 percent rise in that person’s alcohol consumption, and that every dollar per capita spent on alcohol ads in a local market caused youth to drink 3 percent more.

Alcohol Advertising at Every Turn

It isn’t just network and cable television commercials that are influencing kids in drinking before they are legally eligible. Adolescents are bombarded by alcohol ads at multiple fronts. For example, films that contain scenes focused on parties and alcohol-centered situations target teens and also impact their drinking decisions. Print advertising is hardly alcohol-free, either. In fact, compared to adults, underage youth view more alcohol advertising in magazines. Take a look at the frightening statistics of what kids below 21 years of age are exposed to:

  • 45% more beer and ale advertising than adults
  • 12% more distilled spirits advertising
  • 65% more low-alcohol refresher advertising

Most recently, new media such as viral videos, online games, social media sites and even some applications are being used to pipe the alcohol corporations’ messages to adolescents even though the companies say they require age verification before showing content.

For example, Heineken created Heineken City, an “online world” that was accessible on their website and Facebook page. Captain Morgan, Crown Royal and Johnnie Walker have also developed highly effective web-based campaigns that were available to almost anyone.

The real danger to this phenomenon is that both parents and children may not recognize some of these promotional vehicles as actual advertising, yet the companies are able to sneakily affect adolescent behavior.

The Growth of Teen Alcohol Use

Experts in alcoholism have long charged that liquor companies target underage youth with their ads, promotion and marketing strategies. The most recent concerns have focused on sweet, stronger-than-beer alcoholic beverages called flavored malt beverages, also known as “FMBs,” "malternatives" or "alco-pops." These flavored alcoholic drinks encourage an easy transition for kids from soda to alcohol, fueling alcohol-related concerns by parents and society as a whole.

As research indicates, branding plays a significant role in the alcoholic beverages teens choose to drink. Perhaps then it is no surprise that 33 percent of eighth graders and 70 percent of U.S. twelfth graders have already consumed alcohol, and 4,300 underage children die of alcohol use each year.

On the other hand, parents, teachers, friends and family can help put an end to underage drinking. Talking honestly about ads, apps and other media featuring alcohol is a good start. Adults should emphasize that alcohol is not glamorous and can actually cause significant harm. Parents need to keep an open dialogue on this important subject as this cannot just be a one-time conversation. Underage alcohol use is a very serious issue; it could be a matter of potential addiction or even life and death.

For a closer look at popular alcohol brands and marketing strategies, click through our slideshow of the Top 10 Alcohol Brands Consumed By Youth.

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