Alcohol marketing is big business, but what is it for? If the drinks industry is to be believed, advertising doesn’t make people drink more: it just encourages them to choose one brand over another. If health campaigners are to be believed, alcohol marketing causes people to both start drinking earlier, to drink more frequently and to have more positive expectations about alcohol. Meanwhile, social researchers point out that advertising operates within a complex range of cultural and economic drivers and that it is extremely difficult to bracket off the impact of marketing from the other contextual influences that shape people’s beliefs and behaviours around drink.
In the last few weeks, a number of reports have been published calling for the stricter regulation – or outlawing – of alcohol marketing (see here, here and here). For health lobbyists, alcohol marketing is fundamentally problematic precisely because alcohol is not an ‘ordinary commodity’. If, as they would argue, the goal of public policy should be to reduce consumption then all marketing is detrimental. For drinks producers, such calls ignore the social value of alcohol, impinge unjustly on individual freedom, and overlook the fact that marketing is designed to promote brand awareness and loyalty, not increase overall consumption. To many people the last claim may sound like equivocation, for what is the point of advertising if not to make people consume more? However, the question of value is critical: do the potential social harms of alcohol outweigh our individual rights as consumers, or the corporate right of businesses to advertise their products?