Young people drink booze – get over it

The idea that sexy adverts for Martini or posh vodka are what encourage teens to drink is completely bonkers.

Tom Bailey

Topics Politics

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Shocking as it may seem, many young people drink alcohol. Some of them even find it an enjoyable experience, despite the oh-so-convincing campaigns by the anti-alcohol lobby and public-health busybodies that present drinking as dangerous. How can these startling revelations be true? Why do young people keep drinking this wicked (or WKD) poison?

Alcohol Concern Cymru has the answer. More than 100 anti-alcohol campaigners, or rather ‘charity and health officials’, have descended on Cardiff for Alcohol Concern Cymru’s annual anti-booze fest. The organisation claims that young people are increasingly being targeted by alcohol advertisers online, through mediums like Facebook, in order to get around strict bans on alcohol adverts on TV and elsewhere.

According to Andrew Misell, manager of Alcohol Concern Cymru, ‘alcohol marketing messages are getting through to children and young people well below the legal drinking age’. He believes that ‘youngsters exposed to alcohol marketing are more likely to start using alcohol and have more positive expectations about its effects’.

It seems that, despite the anti-alcohol lobby having access to state funds and backing, as well as being able to broadcast its message on any media it likes, alcohol companies are still in business and very few young people care for the twenty-first-century temperance message promoted by anti-booze groups. Apparently, despite the perpetual barrage of public-health advertising, the digital Don Drapers of alcohol advertising are so slick with their online marketing that young people are weirdly deciding to continue drinking.

Actually, the idea that alcohol advertising itself causes people to start drinking is an odd one. As writer and researcher Chris Snowdon has shown, alcohol consumption levels in the UK were higher in the first quarter of the twentieth century, before the rise of modern advertising. Alcohol consumption fell due to times of austerity and hardship before and after the world wars, and started to pick up again in the 1960s as people’s incomes grew. It seems that rising levels of alcohol consumption have more to do with an increase in disposable income than with slick advertising campaigns.

Of course, advertising brings alcohol companies some benefit or they wouldn’t bother spending so much money on it. But the purpose of alcohol advertising is more to influence which brand of drink people choose; it’s about making one particular brand stand out over others, not about encouraging people who would otherwise be sober to start boozing. Drinking alcohol in the UK is nothing new, but the current structure of the alcohol market and industry, which requires constant product differentiation, is.

Alcohol Concern Cymru also alleges that alcohol companies are targeting young people specifically, including those under the legal drinking age of 18, thereby encouraging underage drinking. Yet the staple drink for under-18s is either cheap vodka that tastes like paint stripper or the horrendous two-litre bottles of White Lightning cider – hardly the type of alcohol associated with the cutting edge of advertising. If the busybodies of Alcohol Concern Cymru had ever done a bit of teenage drinking, maybe they would know how silly their worries over ‘cool’ online adverts for Martinis or Cirroc vodka sound. Underage drinking generally operates on the straightforward principle of: get whatever you can and neck it.

It is hard to imagine alcohol companies even bothering to try to advertise their products to under-18s, considering that is a constituency that can’t even walk into a shop and purchase alcohol. It seems pretty unlikely that under-18s make up any sizeable amount of the alcohol market share. Advertising is also about image, and the last thing most corporations want is for their brand to be associated with teenagers downing drink in an underpass or in the local park while listening to music on mobile-phone speakers.

The puritans at Alcohol Concern Cymru claim that there should be an end to ‘alcohol industry sponsorship of sports and music festivals… ensuring that where alcohol advertising is permitted it only reaches an adult audience’. This is another attempt to denormalise alcohol, to make it into a mysterious and scorned product. The proposal that all references to alcohol (except of course in silly Drink Aware adverts) should be cleansed from public life, for fear that young people will become aware of the existence of this intoxicating substance, is about turning alcohol into a new taboo.

It used to be that sex was the unspeakable topic, the taboo that couldn’t be mentioned in public life. It was kept a secret from all under a certain age. Now, anti-alcohol campaigners are trying to turn alcohol into the dirty little secret of the adult population, from which vulnerable young eyes and ears must be shielded.

Tom Bailey is a history undergraduate at University College London. He is currently interning at spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter: @tbaileybailey

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Topics Politics


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