Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Football and booze - New Puritans kick the messenger again


It remains the case that, generally speaking, the purpose of advertising isn't to get new customers. Oh, I know, you don't believe this any more than the "scientists" who work in public health. But it is true. Brand advertising is about heuristics, about the choice architecture and the limited selection which consumers (existing customers) use to decide a purchase.

The problem is that advertising is an easy target for the Church of Public Health:

Researchers have called for much tighter government restrictions or even a ban on the marketing of alcohol during televised football matches, arguing that the messages are seen by and affect millions of children. Their research suggests football fans see around two references to alcoholic brands every minute when they watch a match on TV – in addition to the formal advertising during commercial breaks.

And, as a result of this avalanche of booze advertising we have seen massive increases in children getting drunk?

In 2011, 12% of pupils had drunk alcohol in the last week. This continues a decline from 26% in 2001, and is at a similar level to 2010, when 13% of pupils reported drinking in the last week.

Seems the ads aren't working!

The reported frequency of drinking continues to decline. In 2011, 7% of pupils said they usually drank at least once a week, compared with 20% in 2001.

So about one in ten secondary school children are drinking - half the number that were in 2001 - and around half that number again are drinking regularly (if once a week is 'regular'). So why do we hear this:

"Children who don't drink, who are exposed to alcohol marketing, are more likely to start drinking earlier in their lives," she said. "And children who are already drinking are more likely to drink more after exposure to alcohol marketing."

Especially since the Guardian - in the usual manner of its health reporting presents no actual evidence to support this "scientist's" contention. What we know is that there is a link between awareness of alcohol advertising and drinking but the direction of causality isn't clear. It is quite plausible for people who are drinkers to be more aware of advertising for drink than people who are non-drinkers (indeed this is what the advertising is doing). And even in these cases the effect is small:

Taken as a whole then findings reported in the available studies indicate that alcohol advertising may have small but significant effects on the beliefs, intentions and possibly behaviours of young people.

Hardly a damning description of the bleak effect of booze ads on children. And this is the problem. Just as the advertising bans for smoking haven't massively affected consumption (there was no accelerated decline in use following ad ban introduction), the call for bans on alcohol brands sponsoring football is simply a gesture - the appearance of doing something.

But given that we really don't have a problem - certainly not a whole population problem - with children drinking, this is simply "drinking is evil" translated into public policy.


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