Analysis: studies show that the more alcohol marketing young people are exposed to, the more likely they are to start drinking

More than 1000 days after it was first published and the subject of unusually intense lobbying, the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill has finally passed through the Dáil. Most of the controversy has centred on its proposed restrictions of certain aspects of alcohol marketing and promotion. Supporters of the measure claim that it will protect children and reduce individual and societal harm from excessive alcohol consumption while critics maintain that it will be ineffective because, as they claim, alcohol advertising doesn’t influence drinking behaviour.

So, what does the science say about all of this?

Firstly, it’s important to distinguish between advertising in particular and marketing in general. Advertising is just one part of what is known as the "marketing mix". At its most basic level, marketers refer to the "4 Ps" of marketing – product, price, place and promotion. Each of these 4 Ps can be manipulated by marketers to bring about a change in sales and brand positioning.

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Advertising is one part of the 4th P – promotion – along with sponsorship, sales promotions, direct marketing, personal selling and public relations. In turn, advertising can be further sub-divided according to the communications channel used, such as TV, newspapers, outdoor, online etc. Marketing is considerably broader and more complex than the single issue of advertising and encompasses decisions relating to the price, distribution and the product itself, amongst others. Crucially, these components of the marketing mix are not considered in isolation, but are designed in an integrated and mutually reinforcing manner. In other words, it’s all a lot more sophisticated, inter-connected and strategic, than designing an ad and putting it on a billboard or TV station.

However, some people claim that marketing "doesn’t work" because they themselves feel immune to its power. In reality, we are all influenced by marketing to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the context and our own individual characteristics. But in general those who are younger tend to be more susceptible to marketing influence. This is perhaps because they haven’t formed their individual consumption habits yet or because marketing, and the media more broadly, are used as a guide to "fitting in" and identifying what are, and are not, socially acceptable attitudes and behaviours.

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Marketing exists to drive sales. Its ultimate objective is to generate greater market share, revenue and profit. This can come about through (i) attracting customers away from competitors, (ii) recruiting entirely new consumers or (iii) encouraging existing consumers to buy more of the product.

Representatives of the alcohol industry have long argued that the effects of alcohol marketing are limited to the first of these processes, that it merely works by encouraging drinkers to switch brands. This is partly correct, but not the whole story.

From a scientific perspective, there is now substantial consensus that alcohol marketing influences how soon young people drink

We now have a range of longitudinal studies from different countries that have followed young people over time, tracking their exposure to marketing and their subsequent alcohol consumption. Longitudinal studies are important because they can help to determine if there is a causal relationship between variables. These studies clearly indicate that the more alcohol marketing young people are exposed to, the more likely they are to start drinking and the more they are likely to drink if they are already drinkers. From a scientific perspective, there is now substantial consensus that alcohol marketing influences how soon young people drink, and how they drink once they start.

But the communications landscape is changing rapidly. The days when TV advertising was the dominant persuasive channel are long over, especially when it comes to alcohol. For example, even as far back as 2010, Diageo announced that 21 percent of its marketing budget would be diverted to online marketing. Other alcohol companies and brands have followed suit.

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There are a number of reasons for this. In the first instance, it allows for more effective targeting of consumers, especially via social media. This also means that digital marketing operates largely "below the radar" of policy makers and parents because they do not form part of the target audience, and are thus potentially unaware of many digital marketing initiatives targeting young people.

Secondly, the interactive nature of digital marketing makes it arguably more effective than traditional, passive advertising methods. But perhaps most importantly, digital marketing, through both social media as well as an array of branded games and apps, allows companies to recruit consumers as part-time marketers. It encourages consumers to share marketing material with their friends, perhaps even being unaware of precisely how they are being used by brands.  

Taken as a whole, this means that the most important communications channels for young people now target them with very specific messages that are combined with peer influences, and encourage engagement between consumers, peers and brands. This is a potent mix that is far more powerful than anything marketers could have imagined even a decade ago, and the full implications of it, both for individuals and for society as a whole, are as yet unclear.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ