How is alcohol advertised?
Since the ancient Greeks celebrated Dionysus, the god of wine, theater, and ecstasy, a connection has endured among alcohol, media, and sensuality. In addition to sharing a profound appeal to the senses, alcohol, theater, and ecstasy offer an escape from the mundane and a sense of liberation. The view of intoxication as a celebration and a rite of passage continues to this day, anchored by the many messages modern society reflects in its depictions of alcohol through advertising.
Echoes of Dionysus reverberate throughout much modern advertising for alcohol, which often touts youth, sexual prowess, beauty, and athleticism. Initiation into manhood, quite often involving male bonding through modern-day sporting events, is rarely viewed as complete without alcohol. Alcohol advertisers carefully create their own myths about alcohol normalcy, portraying a world where the successful people drink and all drinkers are rewarded.
Through advertising, young people in particular learn to associate alcohol with social acceptance. Those who abstain are promptly left behind and dismissed. Young people are especially susceptible to the lure of alcohol advertising. The images depicting alcohol’s social benefits are wildly exaggerated and distorted by alcohol advertising, and many young people tend to accept the misconception that drinking will somehow improve their lives.
Instead of finding the advertised camaraderie and companionship, many will find themselves, years later, abusing alcohol alone. Alcohol advertising frequently sells one reality but delivers another.
The legal age to buy alcohol in all fifty US states is twenty-one years. Many people argue that some alcohol advertising campaigns are designed specifically to appeal to the youth market, despite the legal barriers to consumption. One such compelling argument was frequently made about the advertising mascot Spuds McKenzie, a highly appealing 1980s ad image of a bull terrier dog, the original “party animal.”
Wearing sunglasses, a bandana, a Hawaiian shirt, and headphones, and holding a Bud Light beer, Spuds was depicted in tropical locales and surrounded by beautiful, scantily clad young women. First appearing to acclaim in a 1987 Bud Light commercial during the broadcast of the Super Bowl, Spuds, throughout the late 1980s, rode skateboards, raced horses, drove convertibles, maneuvered surfboards, played Frisbee, and combed beaches.
Sales of Bud Light beer soared during the Spuds ad campaign, which not only marketed the alcoholic beverage but also sold millions of dollars of Spuds paraphernalia: everything from T-shirts to caps to plush toys. Antidrinking groups responded by arguing that the campaign targeted children and teenagers. In 1989, Mothers Against Drunk Driving claimed that Anheuser-Busch , the maker of Bud Light, was deceptively marketing alcohol to children and demanded that Spuds ads cease promoting the beer. An investigation of the ad campaign by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ensued, and although the FTC found no wrongdoing by Anheuser-Busch, the company nevertheless terminated the campaign in 1989.
Anheuser-Busch again ignited controversy in the 1990s with its Budweiser Frogs ad campaign. First appearing as a Super Bowl television commercial in 1995, the Budweiser Frogs depicted three frogs, Bud, Weis, and Er, who lived on a log in a swamp behind a bar and croaked “Budweiser” rhythmically. In 1996, a study revealed that considerable numbers of nine- to eleven-year-old children could easily identify the Budweiser Frogs and associate them with beer, but were unable to recognize or identify various children’s cartoon figures. Antidrinking groups again accused the alcohol industry of targeting children.
Shortly thereafter, another study revealed that when asked to name US presidents, most eight- to twelve-year-old children could name few but had no difficulty naming a variety of brands of beer. In spite of these negative reports, the Budweiser Frogs campaign continued for many years; it is recognized in the adverting industry as one of most successful marketing campaigns in history.
A 2015 study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that exposure to alcohol ads predicted onset of underage drinking as well as binge and hazardous drinking in young people between the ages of fifteen and twenty-three. However, the same year, a study from the University of Texas at Austin found that while alcohol advertising increased 400% between 1971 and 2011, overall alcohol sales did not do so significantly, suggesting a weaker link between advertising and alcohol consumption.
The alcohol industry is a frequent sponsor and promoter of sporting events, many of which appeal to a large percentage of fans who are minors. From the Super Bowl to the World Series to auto racing to college basketball, the alcohol industry spends billions of sponsorship and advertising dollars each year, specifically targeting an audience of sports fans, many of them younger than twenty-one years.
The alcohol industry provides a lucrative source of funding for collegiate sports, especially the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) annual basketball championships (known as March Madness), but some critics argue that the price for this funding is too high, owing to the toll it levies in the form of underage drinking. The NCAA’s playoff and championship games, for instance, welcome millions of children and minors as viewers each year, who are subjected to the same degree of intense alcohol advertising as adults. Although the alcohol industry maintains that it is advertising its products so rigorously during such sporting events only to establish brand loyalty among adults who already drink, March Madness nonetheless draws millions of underage viewers.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), studies reveal a greater propensity among young people to initiate drinking at a younger age if they are heavily exposed to alcohol advertising. Moreover, the NIAAA cites evidence demonstrating that the younger a person begins to drink, the greater the likelihood that he or she will become an alcoholic. For example, statistically, the NIAAA reports that a person who begins drinking by age fifteen years is four times as likely to become a heavy drinker and dependent on alcohol than a person who begins drinking at age twenty-one years.
Children, drawn to watch their favorite sports teams and athletes, are ill equipped to decipher the deceptive messages of alcohol advertising. Youths often come away from watching such sporting competitions with a false sense of normalcy, believing that alcohol consumption as portrayed by advertising is ubiquitous, harmless, fun, and inconsequential, regardless of age or circumstance. Fans attending both collegiate and professional sporting events sponsored by alcohol companies have recently become increasingly dismayed and alarmed at the escalation of public drunkenness and violence occurring among fans, an environment that is growing increasingly unsafe for children.
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