Sunday, 16 October 2011

From Mad Men 'glamour puss' to grave: the cost of alcohol advertising to teens

As Einstein said, 'Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results'. Unfortunately alcohol researchers seem doomed to repeat themselves while nobody is listening.

The case in question is the role of regulation in alcohol advertising, which has come up again in a new study by consultant psychiatrist Bobby Smyth reported in the Irish Examiner this week.  The study tells us two things: that 'Teens abusing alcohol are more likely to buy leading brands rather than the cheapest or strongest drinks', and 'that alcohol advertising and sponsorship should be "seriously restricted" by law'. 

This echoes Smyth's 2010 study which found that 'as teenagers view drinking as increasingly pervasive and normalized, they are more likely to commence drinking themselves'.  Both studies also provide further evidence of a steady decline in the age of first drinking, with 13 years now being a common starting age.

Ten years ago the Health Research dept of NUI Galway trod similar ground. Their study The Impact of Advertising on Teenagers in Ireland  demonstrated 'the inadequacy of the current codes' and 'a compelling case for an overhaul of alcohol advertising".  But as reported before on Gargle Nation, neither the UK nor Irish governments have listened to these and many other similar findings, and the revolving door of the 'failure of self regulation' by the alcohol industry continues.

The Galway report explains how the advertising works.
'Alcohol advertising has a strong attraction for Irish teenagers as it ... reinforces the use of alcohol with a range of activities that teenagers aspire to, engage in and enjoy. ...It is likely to have a greater impact among the younger age groups and the 15-17 year old girls than the older boys, given that they perceive the advertising messages as saying that alcohol can help them have fun, make friends and become popular and those that don’t drink are missing out. ...for most of the girls, alcohol use is seen as a way to increase self confidence".

"Releasing my Super me"

Last year a report to the UK parliament showed who is actually reading the research. It is the alcohol industry itself, and more specifically the Mad Men employed to run their advertising campaigns for them.  How the advertising industry set about exploiting these policy weaknesses and reaching a teenage audience makes chilling reading.  Produced by Professor Gerard Hastings the report analyses internal emails and advertising planning materials obtained from the industry.  Presenting the findings to the UK parliament, Professor Hastings asks again 'whether the current regulatory environment affords youth sufficient protection from alcohol marketing'?  Specifically the
'documents we analysed show that attempts to control the content of alcohol advertising have two systemic failings. Firstly, the sophisticated communications and subtle emotional concepts such as sociability and masculinity that comprise modern advertising (and sponsorship) often defy intelligent analysis by the regulator, especially when the thinking and strategising that underpins them remain hidden. Secondly, producers and agencies can exploit the ambiguities in the codes and push the boundaries of both acceptability and adjudication.

"Delivering masculinity"

Carling advertisers, for example, discuss how Carling Weekend can reach young pop concert goers effectively, and be “the first choice for the festival virgin,” The plan includes offering free branded tents and a breakfast can of beer as 'a refreshing start to the day'.  The advertisers also understand how young men 'think about 4 things, we brew 1 and sponsor 2 of them.” “Ultimately" they advise, "the band are the heroes at the venue and Carling should use them to ‘piggy back’ and engage customers emotions".

Remembering 'the Carling commandments' “Thou shalt never desert thy mates in drunken distress” and “Thou shalt never miss a round" and that “potency is a key area to delivering masculinity” Carling’s planning documents reveal that its aim is to position the brand as a "social glue" and that it "celebrates, initiates and promotes the togetherness of the pack, their passions and their pint because Carling understands that things are better together".

 Diageo is also in on the act, highlighting the brand values and personality of Smirnoff Black as “urbane,” “masculine,” and “charismatic”. Penka vodka on the other hand "releases my Super Me. Why?  Because when I drink it, I feel I am in the know and part of an elite group".  Sidekick meanwhile can help you “Kick starting the night" and exploit your "macho competitiveness".  But to be a real man you need to know "how much can you take?”

The advertising executives are bang up to date with social media too.  Alcohol companies should exploit the opportunity to connect with "‘Young and Energised" consumers who engage in "new technologies and gadgets, always looking for the new things to tell their mates about and share on their Facebook/Twitter".  So how to reach them?  Set up 'facebook pages' and produce 'cool ads' that offer "routes to magic". It should look like it’s come from your mate, but is infact Carling branded”.

"Do the Lambrini"

The special prize goes though to Lambrini.  Lambrini looks like a 'sparkling wine' marketed to young women but is in fact referred to by the marketing people more truthfully as 'the kids drink'.  Lambrini can apparently "make you and the girls forget your dull working week" and "transform you into the glamour pusses you know you should be". Extensive television advertising ran together with a competition to  find the “Lambrini girl” with “the UK’s sexiest legs".

As Hastings writes in the BMJ, 'the cynicism is palpable'. 
'Lambrini’s tenacious attempt to retain the strapline ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ in the face of repeated advice from the regulator that it is "targeting young girls, and promotes getting pissed", was unacceptable. Only when a young woman died after a Lambrini drinking binge and the strapline appeared in newspaper coverage of the death did Lambrini feel there might be benefits in relinquishing it'.

But the tragic effects of marketing alcohol to vulnerable young women didn't end there. In the pages of British newspapers are three more tales of some 'Lambrini girls'.  The Telegraph reports how a 14 yr old babysitter drank three bottles of Lambrini before filming herself killing the owner's rabbit by repeatedly throwing it against a wall.   The Mail Online carries the story of a vicar's 19 year old daughter who drank Lambrini with a 17 yr old and 13 yr old friend before getting into an argument that led to her jumping to her death from a window.  And the Daily Mail reports the unprovoked rage of the Lambrini fuelled teenage girls who senselessly and without motive kicked an elderly man to his death as he walked past them in a park.

As Einstein also said.  'Only two thing are infinite, the universe and human stupidity. But I'm not sure about the former'.