Alcohol Advertising Bans Do Not Appear to Reduce Underage Drinking

The combination of youthful unwise choices and mind-altering substances like alcohol is dangerous enough to concern not only parents, but society as a whole. Consequently, there is an ever running stream of research into how best to curb adolescent alcohol use. The problem is that the research frequently yields contradictory conclusions. One of those controversies exists over the usefulness of prohibiting alcohol advertising in preventing teen alcohol consumption. Does limiting or eliminating alcohol ads make it less likely that kids will use alcohol?

The answer is complex. To begin with there are plenty of other contributing influences which would need to be effectively factored out in order to get a clear picture of how advertising affects alcohol use. Studies which look for what primarily impacts a young person’s likelihood of abusing alcohol repeatedly point to the influence of parents and close friends as of primary importance. Another factor which has been shown to influence alcohol use is price. When alcohol is expensive, fewer kids can afford to indulge. Of course, adults who consume alcohol would not necessarily welcome higher prices in the name of teen prevention.

Another question which needs to be answered is just how influential advertising is in affecting our purchasing habits. Plenty of research shows that while advertising may be effective in getting us to try another brand of a product, it rarely creates new demand for the product. In other words, consumers may be influenced to buy a less expensive or more expensive brand of perfume, but advertising has not been shown to create new perfume users. In the same way, alcohol companies are advertising to get drinkers to switch labels more effectively than they are in winning over new drinkers. Beer drinkers, wine drinkers, vodka drinkers may each be swayed to try another kind of their chosen beverage by effective marketing, but no studies show that advertising wins over new wine or beer drinkers.

Prohibiting alcohol advertising during certain hours was tried in the Netherlands in recent years. From early morning until nine at night, the Dutch made it illegal to advertise alcohol on television or radio. Compliance with the ruling was judged to be practically universal, yet the ban did next to nothing to impact teen alcohol use in that country. Experts suggest that the ban failed because teens tend to populate the largest segment of after nine p.m. tv viewers. By driving alcohol ads to late night tv, the advertisers were actually more effective in reaching a younger audience.

When we are faced with a clear concern, the temptation is to do something rather than do nothing. No one is suggesting doing nothing, of course. But, it is wise to choose interventions which have the best chance of being effective. So far, placing limits on alcohol advertising has not proven to be an effective plan.