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Connecticut connection

Chris Orr questions whether advertising should be blamed for boozing youngsters

Blooming heck. It doesn’t get any easier for the advertising industry, does it? Apparently a US study conducted by the University of Connecticut has found that youths between the age of 15 and 26 are more likely to drink more if they are exposed to advertisements for alcohol.

Now I am not going to question the veracity of the study. They talked to 1,872 people in this age group over a two-year period. But quite what their control was in the media/TV-dominated world of the US was, I don’t know. Did they have a fair smattering of kids in there that claimed never to have been exposed to alcohol advertising? Because if that’s the case then I would suggest, your honour, that it is possible that those children were telling a few dodgy porky pies.

Assuming, however, that there is validity to the study and there are a number of youths in the US who have never seen a Budweiser advert (I hope their marketing people are paying attention to this niche, but clearly targetable market), then one has to sit up and pay attention.

If there is a close link proved between the two, then it’s important that advertisers realise that their days are numbered – or they have to strive even more to be seen as being responsible in terms of how they advertise, where they advertise and who they advertise to when it comes to alcoholic drinks.

But it sounds to me like a direct link is a way off. The head researcher Dr Lesley Snyder is quoted as claiming the "results contradict claims that advertising is unrelated to youth drinking amounts, that advertising at best causes brand switching, only affects those older than the legal drinking age or is effectively countered by current educational efforts".

“Alcohol advertising was a contributing factor to youth-drinking quantities over time," added Dr Snyder. And yet the good doctor also admitted that there is still no actual causal link proved.

Which means it’s not actually advertising’s fault, is it? I’d be tempted to blame the parents (so God help my children), or their friends, or the person illegally selling alcohol to the underaged. There is a demand for alcohol. It has always been there in youth – and always will be. It might be slightly exacerbated by advertising. And is almost certainly made worse by irresponsible drinks advertising. But, as I have said before and will no doubt say again, to blame the advertising agency for the kind of statistics in the reports above is ridiculous. Blame the breweries who don’t sack managers or hold internal investigations into underage drinking. Blame the police who frankly don’t prosecute enough off-licences and blame the parents who allow 14 year olds to be out on our increasingly dangerous streets, drinking alcopops at 2.00am in the morning. Hell, blame the advertising industry, because you can, and because they can be singularly uninventive when they want to be and still charge the same fees. But don’t blame the advertising agencies entirely. It would be fun and entertaining to do so, but not necessarily fair and equitable.

db January 2006

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