Children in UK are more exposed to alcohol promotion than adults

Teenagers watching TV
If your factory inadvertently poisons the fish in your local river, you would certainly be held responsible. It would be no defence to say that you didn’t mean for this to happen. Why shouldn’t the same precedent apply to marketing?
Professor Gerard Hastings
Experts are calling for a complete ban on alcohol-related advertising and sponsorship in the United Kingdom after a study revealed that British children are more exposed to promotional campaigns than their parents. In an editorial published on to coincide with the first independent alcohol strategy for the UK, Professor Gerard Hastings from the University of Stirling and Dr Nick Sheron from the University of Southampton argued that the country’s ‘flawed’ alcohol regulatory system must be reformed to provide stronger protection for children.

An analysis conducted by the RAND Corporation at the behest of the European Commission revealed that 10 to 15 year olds in the UK see 10 per cent more alcohol advertising on television than their parents. Perhaps even more worryingly, British youngsters are exposed to 50 per cent more alcopop-specific advertising than adults. Whilst the researchers were unable to draw any sensible conclusions about exposure from digital outlets, they did point out that young people are the heaviest users of such media, and alcoholic brands are working vigorously to exploit associated marketing opportunities.

In an interview with, Professor Hastings, Director of Stirling’s Institute for Social Marketing, explained why in his opinion, regulatory reform in this area is long overdue. I began by asking about the most significant dangers posed by alcohol advertising to youngsters.

"What tends to happen is that the more that children are aware of, familiar with and engaged with alcohol advertising, the sooner they start to drink and the more they drink once they do start," Professor Hastings explained.

With this in mind, I asked why young people are being exposed to more alcohol advertising than their parents. Is it because they watch more television than adults or is it because of where and when these commercials are broadcast?

"There are a number of factors at play here," Professor Hastings replied. "Analysis revealed a significant wrinkle in the data collected during the course of the study, and I think that this is a telling finding. Overall, 10 to 15 year olds are seeing 10 per cent more alcohol advertising than their parents. However, when you hone in on alcopop-specific advertising, this figure jumps to 50 per cent more."

I went on to ask whether Professor Hastings had been surprised by how much the exposure levels of adults and children differed in the case of alcopops.

"Yes and no," he replied. "I was surprised to the extent that for a long time, industry has claimed that it has this issue under control and that the regulatory system is protecting children. However, the Health Select Committee and my colleagues and I have previously expressed concerns over the dangers posed by adverts overtly and deliberately aimed at 18 to 21 year olds. This group represents a key target for alcohol marketers because this is the age at which people begin to drink properly. Manufacturers want to encourage brand awareness and familiarity, particularly within this age group.

"The problem is that when you target 18 year olds, you very often occupy the types of media that 15 year olds use," Professor Hastings continued. "15 year olds find these adverts aspirational because most 15 year olds want to be 18 year olds. The pictures, messages and approaches used within these commercials are, therefore, likely to appeal to 15 year olds as well as to the target audience. The RAND study shows that this is exactly what is happening. Moreover, in addition to seeing more of these adverts than adults, young people have reported liking them more."

Despite these trends, it is perfectly legal – under the current regulatory system – for companies to target alcohol-related marketing campaigns at 18 to 21 year olds. I asked Professor Hastings why he believes that manufacturers should be held responsible for potential overspill into other groups.

"If your factory inadvertently poisons the fish in your local river, you would certainly be held responsible," he replied. "It would be no defence to say that you didn’t mean for this to happen. Why shouldn’t the same precedent apply to marketing?"

Central to the strategy recommendations are calls for a complete ban on alcohol-related advertising and sponsorship. I asked Professor Hastings why a tightening of the regulations relating to alcohol promotion wouldn’t be sufficient to protect children from such advertisements.

"We have tried to tighten the regulations again and again, and we just haven’t succeeded," he answered. "If we were to remove alcohol promotion from one part of the system – say television – marketing money would simply be pumped into another channel. Way back in the 1960s, for example, we banned tobacco advertising on television. However, you can’t tell simply by looking at data for advertising expenditure across the decade. The ban began in 1965, yet for the rest of the decade, promotional spending continued at exactly the same level. In other words, the tobacco companies simply started to purchase more posters and magazine ads. If we were to ban alcohol-related TV adverts, exactly the same thing would happen.

"There is, of course, another enormous elephant in the room," Professor Hastings continued. "We cannot ignore digital media. The ability to use social networking sites as marketing tools makes the idea of partial regulation completely untenable. These adverts cannot be limited in terms of their content or duration. In the past, a monolithic communicator in the form of TV communicated to millions of people. Nowadays, millions of communicators communicate to millions of other people. This results in a ricochet effect which, in comparison to the old model, is totally chaotic. Trying to tighten advertising regulations for the internet is just impossible. We know that kids are being damaged by alcohol advertising and we concede that we have been unable to prevent this damage from occurring. The most sensible option, therefore, is to do away with alcohol advertising altogether. This course of action makes even more sense when you consider how many of us in the UK are drinking more than we should be drinking."

My final question to Professor Hastings concerned whether or not he is optimistic that policymakers will listen to the strategy recommendations. How likely is a complete ban on alcohol advertising and sponsorship within the foreseeable future?

"The strategy that has been launched has many strings to its bow," he said. "One club isn’t going to win the game; a variety will be necessary. By the same token, if you’re missing a club, your chances of winning are much reduced. For instance, if you don’t have a club to knock the ball into the hole at the end of a game, no matter how good your first shots have been, you will inevitably struggle.

"I think that increasingly, policymakers will begin to listen to these calls," Professor Hastings concluded. "In fact, they already are. Things have progressed an awful lot in the last 10 years, not least because of the toll of alcohol-related deaths. In the UK, 10,000 people per year die prematurely through drinking. However inclined we might be to see this as an unfortunate fact of life, we cannot ignore these figures. For these reasons, I think that there will be action."



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Thanks to and Katy Edgington for a clear, well-written article. Looking forward to working with you again in the future.

Commented AJ Robison on
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