‘Get them laughing to get them drinking’ and ‘Keep them drinking’ while they’re stuck at home.

What’s the first ad you think of when someone says alcohol? Perhaps it is Carlton Draught’s ‘This is a big ad’, or the Canadian Club ‘Over beer?’ series. Chances are, it’s an amusing commercial that comes to mind. 

According to our recent analysis of alcohol ads in Australia, ‘Get them laughing to get them drinking’ is the motto of the alcohol industry. And ‘Keep them drinking’ while they’re stuck at home.

In an Australian first, colleagues from several organisations, including The George Institute for Global Health and Cancer Council WA, analysed themes in over 600 alcohol ads which had been the subject of complaints across a broad range of media. While previous research has looked at the content of ads on a specific media channel, like television or social media, this sample included ads across multiple media types including TV, cinema, outdoor, online, print, and sponsorship.

The analysis, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, aimed to determine whether specific themes are more commonly used in particular media categories, and assess the extent to which alcohol ads contain multiple themes. We looked at nine themes – sport, humour, friendship, manliness, relaxation, product quality, value for money, partying, and sexual attraction. These are themes that previous research has found to be prevalent in alcohol ads and identified as being attractive to young people or associated with risky drinking.

Our analysis found:

  • Over half of the ads (58%) featured at least one of the nine themes.
  • Overall, humour was the most common theme (present in 18% of ads), followed by value for money (14%), sports (14%), and bulk purchases (10%).
  • Humour often co-occurred with other themes, including sexual attraction, mateship, manliness, and partying.
  • When it comes to media type, ads in the TV/cinema category were significantly more likely than ads in other categories to feature humour and to use more than one theme.
  • Almost all ads with a buy-in-bulk theme (90%) also had a value-for-money theme. These themes were prevalent in ads in print media.

Overall, the use of the analysed themes reflects findings from previous research that alcohol marketers effectively position their products as benign, legitimate, and important elements of social life.

While it might seem like a positive thing that 42% of ads analysed didn’t feature any of the themes, in many instances these ads were shown on static media where there is less opportunity to incorporate themes. And even though the content of the ads might not have portrayed any of the nine themes, their placement could convey related concepts. For example, although alcohol brand signage at sports grounds often featured just the brand name, the implicit association with sport is likely to have been automatic for many viewers.

So these are the characteristics of alcohol ads in ‘normal’ times. But what about alcohol marketing in our new COVID-19 world? Preliminary observations of alcohol marketing during the COVID-19 pandemic show we should be concerned about industry behaviour during this time. A snapshot report from Cancer Council WA and the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education reviewed the themes in alcohol ads seen on social media on a Friday night in April and found six problematic marketing messages:

  • Get easy access to alcohol without leaving your home
  • Save money
  • Buy more
  • Drink alcohol during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Use alcohol to cope, ‘survive’, or feel better
  • Choose ‘healthier’ alcohol products

Almost a quarter of the 107 ads explicitly referred to drinking during the COVID-19 pandemic, using phrases like ‘survival wine packs’,  ‘ISO 6-packs’, ‘stay in and drink up’ and ‘wine from home’.

It shouldn’t need to be said that using a global public health crisis to push alcohol sales and encourage people to drink more is not responsible behavior. Clearly, if alcohol companies can pivot from using themes that appeal to children to openly promoting alcohol as the key to surviving a global pandemic, a stronger regulatory system is needed in Australia.

In Australia, alcohol marketing is currently self-regulated by the alcohol and advertising industries through the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) Scheme. There is a substantial body of research that shows self-regulation is ineffective when it comes to protecting children and young people from exposure to alcohol marketing.

Given the alcohol industry spends millions of dollars each year encouraging people to drink, it is little surprise they designed a regulatory system that fails to adequately protect the community. The industry’s goal is to sell as much of its products as possible to maximise profits. This directly conflicts with the public health objective of minimising young people’s exposure to alcohol advertising.

These new findings highlight the weaknesses and loopholes that exist in the regulation of both the content and placement of alcohol advertising across a range of media types including TV, online, outdoor, and sponsorship. We need effective regulation of alcohol advertising in Australia. This means regulations developed and implemented independent of the alcohol and advertising industries. The Federal Government must introduce legislated controls to effectively regulate alcohol ads and protect the younger and vulnerable members of our community from being bombarded with alcohol ads.

Until we see stronger controls on alcohol marketing that protect Australian children and young people, we will continue to call out industry behaviour. The final report from the ACCC Digital Platforms Inquiry released in July 2019 recommended a new regulatory framework be developed and implemented to ensure effective and consistent regulatory oversight of all entities involved in content production or delivery in Australia, including a consistent system of advertising restrictions across all media platforms, both online and offline. We hope this will be an opportunity to see meaningful policy change resulting in an effective system of alcohol marketing regulation.

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Hannah Pierce is an Alcohol Policy and Research Coordinator with the Alcohol Programs Team at Cancer Council WA.

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