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Underage Drinking

Published on April 19, 2012 by

I may be dim, but I don’t understand why the World Federation of Advertisers has developed a “Responsible Marketing Pact” with the eight companies that account for most of the $2.6 billion spent annually to market alcohol in Europe. I get it that it hopes to avoid more restrictive government regulation, so the self-imposed standards will try to keep minors from seeing alcohol marketing on social media, limit their exposure when precluding it is impossible, and make sure that  alcohol pitches appeal to adults.

Of course, this will have the effect of making liquor more appealing to kids than ever before.

Telling people no, or making things hard to get usually increases their perceived value (we had this little experiment in America called Prohibition, and it didn’t work too well). Keeping adult stuff out of the hands of minors is tantamount to teasing them to grasp at it. It’s what kept girlie magazines in business over the years.

The alcohol execs must be laughing over their accomplishment.

We have similar practices already in place in the U.S., but they’re a joke. Ads can’t appear in media with lots of underage readers as subscribers, but how are actual readers kept away? They’re not. Some social media and all web sites are required to ask for visitors’ ages, but we all know how enforceable that is.

And even if it all worked, the real influencers on kids are the programming between the ads and the other kids with whom they interact via social media.

Just watch 5 minutes of Jersey Shore, or go to most any coming-of-age teen movie in the theaters. Ask any teenager you know if they know a peer who drinks, or whether some, most, or all if the parties they’ve attended over the past few months served liquor. Popular media celebrates drunkenness among the underage set, even when it only tolerates it.

Alcohol brands couldn’t buy better marketing. Well, actually, they support such content for this very reason (my gut opinion, not a tidbit of research).

If the industry were really interested in telling the truth about drinking, it would find ways to communicate how unsuitable and unattractive it is to teenagers. Show them gruesome car deaths when teens drink and drive. Share real-life stories from girls who were abused or otherwise emotionally hurt when they were drunk and defenseless. Point out that nobody looks cute or fun or smart when they’re drunk, and that any teen who thinks otherwise is ugly, boring, and stupid. Doing so would be a creative and strategic challenge, since it would require brands to challenge the very reasons why they’re attractive to one consumer group in order to dissuade interest from another. It’s doable, I know that much, since there are many other “adult” activities that present no enticement to teenagers. Paying taxes. Getting a good night’s sleep. Whatever.

The problem with this latest example of self-regulation from the European liquor brands is that very gesture to keep teens away from all of the glorious and attractive marketing delivered in support of alcohol won’t do anything but make it more enticing. Look for sales to go up before governments step in and do their jobs.


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