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The Link Between Alcohol Advertising and Teenage Drinking

Lisa Taylor
Lisa TaylorAddiction Counsellor

Insidious Messages

Culturally, children have grown up with alcohol as part of the “norm” for quite a few decades, making underage drinking difficult to overcome. Advertising has become much more insidious and cunning. Although ads do not directly tell children and youth they should be drinking, the idea that they should be are subtly placed in everything they see or hear, and this pretty much goes for any advertising, quickly making any idea more socially acceptable.

An excellent example of deceptive alcohol advertising can be found in a recently banned Budweiser commercial which features current UFC Featherweight Champion, Conor McGregor. His core message and quote from the video is, "If your dream doesn't scare you, then it's not big enough." Inspiring message, right? Moreover, the video itself practically speaks to any dreamer's heart. 

The commercial (or video rather) is 40 seconds long and gets this message across quite well while being set to inspiring music and an appealing backdrop. It then ends with bold red lettering that says, “DREAM BIG” with a strategically placed link below: BUDDREAMBIG.IE. In less than one second, the Budweiser logo appears on top while the inspiring music carries on. Check out Conor’s “Dream Big” commercial here.

Feeling inspired? So were we. However, in less than one minute, Budweiser managed to inspire you to “Dream Big” while inserting the idea that being a big dreamer has something to do with beer. The video can be found on Youtube, a place where your kids like to hang out these days and can easily be shared on social media, another place they spend a lot of their time.

Perhaps the even more clever part of this video is that many young people look up to celebrities with stories and who have made things happen in their lives, which encourages your kids to dream big and want to make things happen in life. The message reaches out to our children and youth because they are among some of our greatest dreamers. When we share or applaud such commercials or videos, it's innocently done because people love the message and aren't necessarily focused on the beer or alcohol brand itself.

Unfortunately, alcohol brands and companies have long been incorporated into what we see and hear, even if it's made to look "innocent" and "normal." Another great example of this can be found in popular cartoons like the beloved story of "Beauty and the Beast." You've most likely watched it, and so have your kids.

The messages found in the opening scene of this Disney movie often correlates with adult-targeted alcohol advertising. Take a look at the scene above and below, the only difference between the Disney image and the image below is the fact that one is a cartoon for kids, and the other is a typical real-life scenario. If you watch the entire opening scene of Beauty and the Beast and take a look at some of the beer ads and commercials, few differences exist.

Now the aim is not to villainize Disney movies or Beauty and the Beast but only meant to demonstrate how drinking is being encouraged through a variety of mediums, and our kids are getting subtle messages about drinking more than a lot of us even realise.

Underage Drinking and Emotions

Another link between underage drinking (and drinking in general) is the emotions often portrayed in popular venues that justify drinking. For example, the men in the photo above are celebrating something and look happy. It looks like they are having a great time with friends, no harm was done.

Sports commercials are famous for this type of advertising because they remind us that the upcoming football match or tournament is cause for getting together with your best mates at the local pub or a friend's home to drink beer and hopefully celebrate a win. Sports ads are notorious for showing sports gear and beer in the same scene along with people having fun. After all, playing and watching sports is a healthy activity, right?

Movies are well-known for invoking the message that when you are down on your luck, it's completely normal to drown your sorrows in a few drinks down at the local watering-hole. Even with the death of a loved one, the message that it's entirely appropriate to drink as a way of coping is "normal" and totally warranted. Sadly, people start off drinking for fun; then it starts becoming a way of coping with life in general, which eventually turns into an addiction and a disease for many people. 

The above scene is of Woody Harrelson playing Haymitch in The Hunger Games series. He is portrayed as a drunkard who drinks to deal with life and its sorrows throughout the entire series, a typical scene found in most movies. 

Feeling sorry for yourself? Not to worry. Alcohol advertising has covered this one too. A Brazilian advertising agency came up with this ad for the beer brand Boca Maldita.

The worst part of about this agency’s marketing scheme is that each ad focuses on a different Social Media channel. Your kids spend hours on popular social media channels, and this organization has even put some pro-adultery type messages in with the mix, suggesting to anyone (including our youth) that drinking alcohol (and cheating) is the best way to deal with life's problems. The advertising is almost normalizing this behavior and using social media to promote this brand.

With advertising such as this, our youth hardly stands a chance when it comes to underage drinking. Their friends are viewing the same things and getting the same messages, therefore, it makes drinking alcohol to have a "good time" and deal with “life’s disappointments” a socially acceptable practice, and if you are not doing it, you are simply not "cool" or "hip". The worst part about this is all kids want to "fit in" and to be accepted by their peers. By this point, your teens have seen the many ways drinking has been "normalised," causing many of them to quickly cave and give in to the pressure.

Some of the most powerful human emotions have been covered in the many guises of alcohol advertising: happiness, pleasure, inspiration, sadness, loneliness, anger, and guilt, making the cycle of alcoholism even harder to break.

Statistics on Underage Drinking

After taking a look at the different types of alcohol advertising and how it plays a role in influencing youth, let’s take a look at a few statistics on underage as well.

According to the CDC’s (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) website:

  • More than 4,300 underage youth die due to excessive drinking, and
  • even though drinking under the age of 21 is illegal in the U.S., approximately 11% of the alcohol consumed is by people aged 12 – 20 years and more than 90% of that alcohol is due to binge drinking.
  • Underage drinkers tend to consume more alcohol per drinking occasion compared to adult drinkers.
  • In 2010 alone, there were around 189,000 emergency room visits by underage drinkers for alcohol-related conditions and injuries.

Youth Drinking Levels

According to a Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted in 2013, the following was discovered among high school students in the past 30 days:

  • 35% of high school students drank some alcohol.
  • 21% of them binge drank.
  • 10% of them drove after they drank some alcohol
  • 22% got into a car with a driver who had alcohol to drink

Results from Other U.S. National Surveys

  • In a 2013 survey, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 23% of youth between the ages of 12 and 20 drink alcohol and 14% of them said they had been binge drinking within the last 30 days.
  • In a 2013 survey by Monitoring the Future, they reported that approximately 28% of 8th graders (Year 9) and 68% of 12th graders (Year 13) had already tried alcohol, 10% of year nine students and 39% of year 13 students drank alcohol during the past 30 days. 

The table below shows the percentage of youth in Western Countries who reported that they had already been drunk at the age of 13 or even younger.

Common Consequences of Underage Drinking

When youth drink alcohol, they are more likely to experience:

  • Higher absence in school and low grades
  • Social problems, like fighting and lack of participation in activities
  • Legal issues (especially for drunk driving)
  • Physical problems (hangovers and illnesses)
  • Sexual activity (unwanted, unplanned, and unprotected)
  • Disrupts normal growth and sexual health
  • Sexual assault
  • Physical assault
  • Higher suicide or homicide risk
  • Alcohol-related injuries and car crashes
  • Memory problems
  • Drug abuse
  • Slowed brain development
  • Death due to alcohol poisoning

The Solution

While it is not easy to stop the subtle messages commonly found, as a parent, making your kid's life your business is important. Learn who their friends are, pay attention to where they like to hang out, try to restrict what they can watch or at least know what they are watching, and monitor their grades and school performance.

If you happen to notice any strange behavior, sudden dips in their grades, or changes in attitude, then they may have a drinking problem, and this is the time to get them some help. If you are unsure where to get the necessary help and advice, you can always try doing an online evaluation or survey to see if your teenager has a drinking or drug problem. 

Approach the situation in a kind and loving way and without making them feel like they are bad because of their choices. Any negative responses could easily drive them further away and deeper into their addiction.

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