Alcohol use is extremely prevalent in the UK. Although most people drink sensibly and use alcohol to relax and to enjoy social situations, there is a substantial number who drink too much and who experience problems because of their excessive alcohol consumption. These problems are well documented. Alcohol can have detrimental effects both physically and mentally and can impact on practically every area of life. Excessive consumption of alcohol is associated with a raised risk of various cancers, liver disease, pancreatitis and cardiovascular problems such as strokes (Cancer Research UK n.d.). Accidents of all types and antisocial behaviour are far more likely under the influence of alcohol. Poor judgement and loss of normal inhibition can lead to people taking risks and putting themselves and others in danger (Drink Aware n.d.) In this country there are currently problems with both underage drinking and with so-called binge drinking in the 18-30 age range. The burden of cost falls on society as a whole and the cost to the NHS for alcohol related problems is huge.

There is clearly a pressing need to reduce the scale of these problems. The question of why some young and underage people adopt dangerous patterns of drinking is a complex one. There are numerous factors at work and it is difficult to estimate the relative contribution of these factors. Furthermore, mere association does not determine cause and effect. Two particular areas of interest will be considered in this literature review. The first is concerned with the advertising of alcoholic beverages. The second particular area of interest concerns how the media frames stories relating to alcohol consumption.

Alcohol advertising

 People going about their daily lives are exposed to alcohol advertisements in a variety of media and across a number of platforms, for example, television, billboards, magazines, newspapers, sports stadium signs, and on transport networks such as tube trains and underground stations. Ideally, advertising should inform the public so that they can be aware of products and make informed choices among different products or brands. As Dave Trott (cited in Hall: 2009) creative director of London agency Chick Smith said: “People who blame advertising for binge drinking have misunderstood the whole purpose of advertising-it’s about stealing market share, not persuading people to drink.” Total consumption is not increased, but good advertising persuades people to switch brand meaning that some gain market share at the expense of others.

Self-Regulation of alcohol advertising

The UK government has chosen a system of self-regulation of alcohol advertising. This is a voluntary agreement with the drinks industry for restrictions on alcohol advertising. In the UK responsibility for self-regulation is divided between non-broadcast media and broadcast media. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) was established in 1962 to ensure that all non-broadcast media adhered to the basic principles contained in the International Code of Advertising. The ASA code contains specific rules on alcohol beverages.

The Portman Group (Portman Group n.d.) was established in 1989 by the UK’s leading alcohol producers. “Its role was to promote sensible drinking; to help prevent alcohol misuse; and to foster a balanced understanding of alcohol-related issues.” The Advertising Standards Authority is responsible for overseeing this. The code of practice, first introduced in 1996 has undergone a number of changes and the fourth edition of the voluntary Code of Practice on the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks came into full effect on 1 January 2008. This includes a number of guidelines:

“The fourth edition of the. This Code seeks to ensure that products are marketed in a socially responsible way and only to an adult audience. In particular, the Code disallows a drink, its packaging and any promotional material or activity from: 

  • emphasising its alcoholic strength;
  • having a particular appeal to under 18s;
  • incorporating images of people who are (or look) under 25; 
  • causing confusion as to the product´s alcoholic nature;
  • association with bravado, or with dangerous or anti-social behaviour;
  • association with sexual success;
  • having any link to illegal, irresponsible or immoderate consumption;
  • urging consumers to drink rapidly or ´down´ their drinks in one; 
  • suggesting that drinking can lead to social success or popularity; or
  • claiming that the product can enhance mental or physical capabilities,

The regulatory body publicly states that it is satisfied with its performance in complying with the guidelines above. This is not surprising. There have been however, concerns voiced by others for some time about the effectiveness of this self-regulation system. There is an inherent conflict of interest; the drinks industry is concerned largely with profit making and therefore it is in its interest to sell more. On the other hand, the product can be hazardous and so there is a need to restrict excessive consumption.

The effects of Advertising

There is an ongoing debate about precisely how alcohol advertising may influence the pattern and scale of alcohol consumption; research suggests that the effects of such advertising may well be contributing to some of the unhealthy patterns of alcohol consumption. A particular area of interest is the effect that alcohol advertising may have on young people. A number of research papers from around the world have demonstrated that alcohol advertising can readily influence the drinking behaviours of adolescents, for example, Morgenstern, (2011) in Germany and Pinsky (2010) in Brazil. These studies found that the level of exposure to alcohol marketing was heavy, even though the youngsters were also exposed to prevention messages. Faria et al (2011) investigated the association between alcohol advertising and beer drinking among adolescents. They found that alcohol advertising was positively associated with recent beer drinking and suggested that the restriction of alcohol advertisements could be one way to prevent alcohol abuse by adolescents. In Australia, a study involving 287 18-24 year olds found advertising of alcohol WAS managing to convey messages about a range of benefits of alcohol, (Jones, 2009). These benefits were that the product could make people feel more social and outgoing and more likely to have a great time, help them to fit in, help them feel more confident, help them feel less nervous, and help them succeed with the opposite sex. All of these messages breached the Australian self-regulatory code of practice. The researcher also found that there was a strong link between emotional responses to the advertisements and stated intentions to try the advertised products.

Other researchers, for example, Chen et al (2005) have attempted to determine precisely what in alcohol advertising is appealing to young people. Schulz (2011) considered the internet marketing of alcoholic beverages via the internet.  Clearly, this platform is very difficult to monitor and regulate. Anderson et al (2009) carried out a review of longitudinal studies to assess the impact of alcohol advertising and media exposure on future adolescent alcohol use. Participants were adolescents aged 18 years or younger or below the legal drinking age of the country of origin of the study, whichever was the higher. The review suggests that exposure to media and commercial communications on alcohol is associated with the likelihood that adolescents will start to drink alcohol, and with increased drinking amongst baseline drinkers.

Thus, the conflict of interest in the self-regulatory body of the drinks industry is especially challenging in the area concerning young drinkers. The need to protect the vulnerable and the need to recruit a supply of new customers as they reach a legal age to drink presents a huge ethical dilemma: as noted over a decade ago in ‘The Economist’, (1998): “Young drinkers create a quandary for Britain’s drinks companies. They are anxious not to be seen to encourage underage drinking. But they are equally keen for new customers among the over 18s”.  Furthermore, it is well understood that youngsters below the age of 18 are sampling alcoholic beverages on sometimes a regular basis, so those wishing to promote their own product may feel on some level that they would like to reach this group before it is considered to be too late as they reach the legal drinking age.  After all, once they have reached 18, their preferences may already be in place.

So what is the evidence for the position within the UK?  Does this suggest that the code of practice with its built in safeguards to protect the interests of those under the age of 18 is not entirely effective? Could alcohol advertising here be reaching and adversely influencing adolescents? These are questions which are quite difficult to answer. The relative effect of any one of numerous factors which persuade youngsters to drink alcohol would be impossible to quantify. As Smith and Foxcroft (2009) note, advertising works on many levels and is complex. Young people are exposed to product placement in films, games, sporting events and music videos, depictions of drinking in various media, and exposure to product stands in shops. There is also sponsorship, viral marketing and price promotions. The guidelines are worded in ways which are ambiguous and arguably open to interpretation; for example, it is quite difficult to define what is meant by: ”having a particular appeal to under 18s”. Even if the self-regulatory body appears to comply with the code of practice, it is still conceivable that alcohol advertising can exert unwanted and undesirable effects on young people. Hastings et al (2005) in a review of research, indeed found this to be the case. There is evidence of effects on young people from alcohol advertising but research has not clearly demonstrated yet how exactly these effects are created.

Saffer (2011) is also concerned with the link between advertising and alcohol consumption. He notes that research into this topic has not consistently demonstrated a clear connection, but is of the opinion that the methodologies employed in the research may account for this lack of consistency in linking the two. Therefore more sophisticated methodologies should be employed in further research. Gordon, Hastings and Moodle, (2010) came to similar conclusions; more sophisticated research has found that there are clear associations between alcohol advertising and drinking behaviour in young people. Encouragingly, some of the more recent research studies assess marketing activity beyond advertising; sponsorship, new media, viral marketing, price promotions, new forms of distribution, product development and increased point of sale activity also may affect alcohol purchasing behaviours.

Because of these as yet unexplained issues, some medical authorities are very concerned and have gone so far as to suggest that all forms of alcohol marketing should be banned. (Gilmore, 2009). It seems that new research should be carried out which will clarify precisely how young people may be perceiving messages from alcohol advertising which do in fact affect their behaviours even if the advertising is not actually contravening the guidelines in place. Research which might better explain these mechanisms would need to make use of theoretical frameworks which underpin the mechanisms of advertising.

Framing theory

The way in which stories are presented in the media makes a difference to the way audiences perceive them and it may shape opinions, attitudes and may even influence behaviour choices. Whenever journalists produce news reports and stories, they have to select material for inclusion and leave out other material. What is omitted is as important as what is included. In addition, some facts are emphasised and given more prominence where others are underplayed or excluded. Thus a news story is not simply a mirror image or literal account of events, but is constructed by journalists who have their own culture, beliefs and agenda. The journalists in turn are influenced by a number of other factors, including the editor and owner of their publication, the political cultural and economic climate in which the story is written as well as by legal, ethical and taste constraints. So, for these reasons, a news report or story in the media is not an objective account of reality, but a subjective picture.

As far as the audience is concerned, news is much more meaningful when it is positioned within a context which they understand. For example, a story makes more sense when those reading it know the background and the key characters; this concept underpins the theoretical framework of ‘news framing’. (Bransford and Johnson 1972: cited in Giles, 2003).  A news frame is thus the verbal or visual material which suggests to the audience what the problem is, who is responsible and what the solution may be. An event may be reported in a number of different ways depending on which elements of the story are included or emphasised. Consequently an audience may interpret the story quite differently depending on the version of the story that they read. Entman (1991) carried out a study into media bias in which he demonstrated how the framing of news stories can produce completely different versions of events. He suggested that four categories could explain how a media frame is produced. These were “agency”, which determined who was responsible for the incident in question, “identification”, or who the audience should identify with, “categorisation” which included whether the incident was intended or an accident and finally “generalisation” which would be where blame could ultimately be placed.

Framing theory applied to alcohol stories in the media.

Media coverage of alcohol consumption and its consequences is similarly framed in ways which persuade the audience to interpret the stories in particular ways and which may affect how they perceive the consequences of drinking and what they regard as “normal” drinking behaviour. A recent study by Nicholls (2011) used quantitative content analysis of seven daily newspapers and four television news programmes and attempted to identify patterns in the representation of alcohol-related stories in the UK news media. This study found that “compared to previous studies, the ”normalization” of drinking in news reporting has declined. Public health advocates have successfully established themselves as key sources for alcohol stories. However, there remains no consensus on public health policy initiatives”. This study did find that celebrities’ drinking behaviour was often referred to in media coverage of alcohol related behaviour. Ruddock, (2009), found that the media circulate highly ambiguous messages around alcohol consumption and that much audience framing  of the topic revolves around the themes of celebrity and violence. “The conclusion from this, however, is that more research is needed on how ideas about healthy drinking are developed through audience centred narratives that use media resources”.


Advertising of alcohol and framing of alcohol related stories in the media may both be contributing to the problems currently being witnessed among underage and young drinkers in the UK. Alcohol advertising works in complex ways and its effects are difficult to isolate when there are so many other factors involved in influencing youngsters to drink unwisely. The way alcohol related behaviour is framed in the media is also possibly giving out ambiguous messages. Alcohol is associated in the press and media with celebrities and there are also gender specific negative consequences of overindulgence. These are violence and accidents for men and rowdy embarrassing behaviour for women. These unclear messages may be unhelpful for young drinkers. More research is needed to clarify how advertising and media framing of alcohol consumption may be affecting young people’s perception of alcohol consumption and may be influencing their health behaviour choices in this area.


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