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Alcohol advertising: Is there a reasonable solution?


The issue of alcohol advertising is heating up worldwide, as problems of underage drinking, abuse, drunken driving, illness, injury and death are sparking debate over whether governments ought, or have the right, to set limits.

Yesterday, in Australia, the Health Minister of New South Wales, John Della Bosca, set off a firestorm when he called for no alcohol ads on television before 9 p.m. Going even further, he suggested a complete ban on all alcohol advertising if that didn’t work. He told a local newspaper: “The power of persuasion of alcohol advertising is the most sophisticated and seductive I have seen. As a student of the art of persuasion for electioneering, the alcohol industry is almost unbeatable.”

Della Bosca’s comment was immediately challenged by New South Wales’ opposition leader, Barry O’Farrell, who said that promoting personal responsibility, not government censorship, is a better way to encourage responsible alcohol use. It’s the old education vs. regulation debate.

The brouhaha brought to mind last week’s explosion in this country when MillerCoors’ plan to introduce a new, high-alcohol drink clearly aimed at youth, Sparks Red, was opposed by 25 state Attorneys General. Under intense fire, the company last Tuesday announced it was shelving the launch. If Sparks Red had ever made it to store shelves, you can just imagine the ads deep-pockets MillerCoors would have created to sell it.

The European Union, like the U.S., forbids targeting minors in alcohol advertising, but individual member states have imposed far more stringent restrictions. France, for example, completely bans alcohol ads on television, while Norway and Sweden allow no advertising of alcoholic beverages that exceed 2.5% (Norway) or 3.5% (Sweden). Numerous other countries allow alcohol advertising on T.V. only at night.

The arguments over whether advertising increases alcohol consumption, or if it encourages underage people to drink, are eternal and probably impossible to resolve. Obviously, if alcohol beverage manufacturers didn’t believe advertising worked, they wouldn’t invest hundreds of millions of dollars in it. But human beings have shown a penchant for alcohol (and mind-altering substances in general) throughout our history, and long before the concept of “advertising” existed, drunkenness was a problem, as the tale of Noah in his tent reminds us. (See Genesis 9:21-24.)

Total bans on things rarely work the way they’re intended. Prohibition was a joke and a disaster. The “war on drugs” has failed. Some people who call for a ban on alcohol advertising undoubtedly do so because of their own ideological or religious beliefs, and it’s not unlikely that some of them would prohibit the sale of alcohol in America, if they could. It’s reasonable to restrict alcohol advertising, but we have to be vigilent not to let the camel’s nose of neoprohibitionism get into the tent of our right to drink. There’s also obviously a huge difference in the way that alcohol is portrayed in advertising. Wine ads tend to be aimed at smart adults and emphasize issues of greenness, respect for the land, pairing with food, family, and a balanced life. Beer ads target juveniles of all age whose hormones are out of control. We shouldn’t lump them all together.

  1. Morton Leslie says:

    This issue in the U.S. is really about beer. I don’t think wine advertising amounts to much, and you only see spirits ads on cable. Banning TV wine ads probably only affects Constellation, Gallo, and maybe Fosters and Diageo. In fact, banning all alcohol ads would favor wine and spirits, which today take a back seat to beer promotion. Beer’s influence is pretty strong at the state and federal level and they usually prevail especially with self interested politicians like McCain. Can you imagine the loss of T.V. revenue if beer ads were banned?

    Wine should posture in support of a ban because it will never happen; and it will make us look responsible. We could even try to work out a trade. No alcohol ads in exchange for free and uniform interstate shipping laws.

  2. There is no denying that advertising is carefully tailored to specific demographics. But did Noah succumb to the power of advertising?

    Intoxicants are like sex. They really don’t need marketing or advertising. Those who want to drink (or smoke, or snort, or shoot up, etc) will do so despite the absence of advertising and in spite of anti-use campaigns.

    Yes, the ads do take advantage of certain demographics. I would be naïve if I were to deny that beer (and now premium liquor) advertising is created to play on the sensibilities of juveniles by pairing the presence or consumption of the given product with coolness, fun, sex appeal and unspoken thrills and debauchery.

    The advertising campaigns we see are not really *product category* awareness campaigns. They are *brand* awareness campaigns. Their goal is securing a greater market share (of people who would already). These ads are intended to entice people who already drink beer to drink Coors instead of Miller. Even with new products (Zima, anyone) the idea is not so much to create new consumers (although that is always nice) but to entice existing ones to your brand.

    These advertising campaigns may also be intended to counter what some may perceive as prohibitionist campaigns – which diminish their revenue. They are a counter strike in a perceived struggle for existing consumers.

  3. Sheila Joyce Gibbs says:

    Yes, I agree ! The liquor ad’s are completely unnecessary & dangerous !
    While being a recovering alcoholic now for 17 mos 13 days, I find them disgusting to the point of wanting to smash the idiot box !
    My late husband & I were avid drinkers ! With friends, family, work mates & neighbours for 30 yrs. Never drunk or this stupid binging. When suddenly we were hit severely & permanently with Grand-Mal Seizures, with no cure. This is only one of the many afflictions from drinking. Many of us have been near frantic to somehow convince our Government the need for Health Warning Labels on all liquor containers. Similar to what they’ve done to Cigarette’s. It’s to late for us 50+er’s, but we need to warn our youth. As I’ve said many times, one day we’ll be in nursing homes, being spoon fed & diaperred. If our youth are then fighting these many health issue’s, who will take over our Governments?

  4. Dr. Horowitz says:

    I don’t know if I agree completely with your wine (smart adult) vs. beer (juveniles) generalization.

    Some of the most successful wine promotions (not ads) are Wine Library TV, where Gary talks about football and oakmonsters (is that a proper name?), and Sideways where Jack and Miles act like juveniles.

    As TV viewing decreases and alternative media sources increase, the traditional ad (30 second spot) will become less important, making the argument over TV regulation less important, and regulation over new media more important.

    On facebook I get Crushpad ads, where I can make my own cult wine! Are 20 year olds who say they are interested in wine in their facebook profiles getting crushpad ads?

    I think I need to open a bottle of wine and basque in my erudition.

    Thanks for the post, that’s interesting to know that this is going on down under. If the Aussies start another neoprohibitionist movement I will need to realize that my new media thoughts are too futuristic.

  5. Dr. Horowitz says:

    Arthur, you might like the book “How Brands Become Icons” by Holt. I like it.

    It compares branding strategies and deconstructs Bud, Corona, and a bunch of other ads.

  6. Dr. Horowitz, Gary V. may be the face of the future, but he seems to me to represent a dumbing down of wine knowledge. (I’ll get slammed in the blogosphere for this blasphemy, but whatever.) I think the best wine writing still represents what it always has been and, hopefully, always will be: intelligent, appealing to smart, thinking people. Does that make me elite? Good. As for the new neoprohibitionism, PLEASE be on the lookout. It’s a stealth attack that could come on with unforeseen power.

  7. Steve:

    Dumbing down is the greatest threat the wine world faces today (see my blog post on Democratizing Luxury Goods). In addition, I am not 100% that GV dumbs wine down.

    Dr. H.:

    Thanks, I’ll have to look that one up.

  8. Dr. Horowitz says:

    Uh oh, have you already started on your bottle of wine tonight Steve? I hope I don’t cause you don’t get slammed. I just started on mine, so let me try to put a coherent response together without getting slammed.

    I don’t know if I agree that Vaynerchuk is dumbing down “wine knowledge”. He’s become the Mickey Mouse (read No Logo) of wine of the next generation, like Mondavi was before. They are both iconic in Holt’s sense of the term.

    Vaynerchuk has made me question the idea of “wine knowledge”. I don’t think that our current premise of “wine knowledge” is anywhere close to as objective as we’d like to think it is. It’s based on French hegemony, or the myth that in order to understand wine you have to understand the classification systems that the French (and the rest of the old world) think that you need to understand. The French are able to charge the highest prices for wine, so the rest of the world copies the French. That’s why the US has AVAs and makes lots of pinot and cab. You’ve said that AVAs are silly and that Masters of Wine are elitist;)

    I think Vaynerchuk is entertaining. Like Howard Stern or Seinfeld, he keeps us guessing what crazy stunt he’ll pull off next. I didn’t buy his book, but I still try to watch WLTV.

    I liked your first book a lot, and look forward to reading more books aimed at intelligent people. But please, no more Wine Bibles, reading that shit is like reading the dictionary.

  9. Dr. Horowitz: Gary V. = Mickey Mouse, Howard Stern and Seinfeld: I don’t disagree with any of that. By the way, if you only read my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, I highly recommend my next one, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff. It is a book I believe will be read for the next 50 years. With all due respect to Karen McNeill, who wrote a dust jacket recommendation for my first book, I promise never to write anything like The Wine Bible. It’s not my thing.

  10. Just curious what the objections are to the Wine Bible?
    It’s a good introductory reference book and recommended reading for several certification programs.

  11. Arthur, I have enormous respect for The Wine Bible. But my understanding is that it took Karen 10 years to write. I’m not that ambitious, and I congratulate my good friend Karen for a contribution to wine literature that has been so successful.

  12. Dr. Horowitz says:

    I can read The Wine Bible on wikipedia.

    A good book (novel) tells a good story, in my humble opinion. It has some entertainment value.

    Steve, in my humble opinion, your second book didn’t tell as good of a story as your first book did. Interview 1, interview 2, interview 3, etc. didn’t have the same story that the journey down the Russian River did.

    My aunt has written two books, and she told me there is pressure for writers to follow-up their first book with a second book, like a movie sequel. Did Home Alone really need a Home Alone Again?

    Arthur, a certificate program in what? A certificate in knowing what the French think we should know?

    I’ve had my bottle of wine. I have to teach tomorrow and I’m going to sleep.

  13. Dr. Horowitz says:

    Just for the record, I also lumped Vaynerhcuk in with Mondavi.

  14. I don’t think a complete ban on alcohol advertising will work. Doesn’t Della Bosca know kids but at all? The more you tell them they can’t have something, the more they want it. I suppose kids are impressionable, but I would think that as long as parents talked to their kids about alcohol the kids wouldn’t be quite as impressionable. I’m from the U.S. and my parents let me taste wine when I was about 10. I hated it and still do to this day! To me, alcohol has never been that big of a deal because my parents exposed it to me, but they didn’t drink very often. Maybe the parents should be setting the example and giving their kids enough self-esteem and knowledge about drinking that they can fight some of the peer pressure and not drink. Maybe I was an odd child, but I only got drunk once while I was in high school. Alcohol just wasn’t a big deal to me. Also, with the Internet now, kids are going to find the alcohol ads if they want to and just as easily as if they were sitting down to watch TV. I think a ban is a nice idea, but won’t work. Many kids stay up later than 9:00 anyway!

  15. Alanna Hector says:

    a total ban on alcohol advertisng (like Norways’s since 1977, Sweden’s since 1979 and France’s since 1991) is aboslutley nothing to do with prohibitionism.

    Come on guys, get your facts right. Advertising bans ban ads, not drinking!

    Did people who wanted to smoke stop smoking after the ads were banned?

    No they didn’t. Banning ads is about REDUCING the sheer volume of ads that kids and teenagers are exposed to.

    There will always be some on YouTube, it is never totally effective (unless you’re in Saudi Arabia). But kids’ brains are affected profoundly differently from adults when they consume ads, scientists have proven it. Kids’ drinking behaviour – and when they take ti up – is massively affected by the ads they are exposed to. Never mind the ones sexed up for children, it is just the sheer NUMBER of ads – on bus stops, train stations, billboards, viral SMS’s, liquor outlet windows, etc etc.

    Banning ads will hurt ONE sector: the liquor industry.

  16. Jon Nelson says:

    If advertising is so effective, why does it decline during economic downturn? For the latest econometric research on the issue of alcohol advertising bans, see my paper on-line at Applied Economics.

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