Newswise — Adults react differently to alcohol advertisements depending on how explicit or implicit the messaging is about the social pleasure of drinking and the possible health effects, a new study shows. Exposure to alcohol marketing is consistently linked to alcohol use. Research also suggests that alcohol advertising influences attitudes around alcohol, such as social norms or reasons for drinking. Policymakers’ options for lowering alcohol consumption and its harms include content controls on advertising. Restricting sales messages to facts about the product is known to reduce how persuasive it is among consumers. Mandating health warnings also increases consumers’ perceptions of risk and reduces the perceived benefits of drinking. No studies, however, have previously examined the effects of such content controls on consumers in the UK. In addition, most research has focused on young adults, yet adults in midlife and beyond may also be vulnerable to the effects of marketing. For the study in Alcohol: Clinical & Experimental Research, investigators at the Institute for Social Marketing and Health, University of Stirling, Scotland, tested the effects of content controls on adult consumers’ reactions in the UK.

Researchers surveyed 2,421 adults in the UK. Half were women, the mean age was 49, and 85% were current drinkers. The participants were randomly assigned to see a mock advertisement for an unfamiliar vodka brand. Each advert differed on two factors. For the first factor, adverts either showed the product packaging and logo on a plain background or alongside three young adults enjoying themselves. For the second factor, the advert contained either a “drink responsibly” message, a consumer protection message used by the alcohol industry, or a multiple-text health warning scripted according to a forthcoming law for the Republic of Ireland. The latter warned about the dangers of drinking, the risk during pregnancy, and the link between alcohol and fatal cancers. Each participant rated their advert for attractiveness, product appeal, trial intentions, product harms, and how enjoyable alcohol appeared.

When the positive social context was removed, participants’ ratings of the advert and product were less favorable, and they were less inclined to try the drink. They were also much less likely to perceive enjoyment in drinking alcohol. Including the multiple-text health warning led to a small reduction in the perceived attractiveness of the advert and product and an increase in the perceived harm. The advert without social context and the multiple-text health warning generated the lowest product appeal and the highest perceived harm. The advert with a positive social context and “drink responsibly” had the opposite effect. Whether or not the advert had positive social features did not significantly modify the impact of the health warning.

This “test of concept” study points to the likely value of content controls in alcohol advertising as a public health measure. It provides preliminary evidence of a consumer impact that could inform effective policy for alcohol marketing, both in the UK and beyond. Although the effects were mostly small, they may be cumulative in real-world settings with routine exposure to alcohol marketing. Over a population, this might lead to meaningful reductions in drinking and related harms. Future research could explore the effects of additional design and message variations on various attitudes and behaviors.

Restricting the content of alcohol advertising and including text health warnings: A between-group online experiment with a non-probability adult sample in the United Kingdom. N. Critchlow, C. Moodie, & K. Gallopel Morvan (p xx)


Journal Link: Alcohol: Clinical and Experimental Research