Getting the message: how alcohol advertising impacts on young sports fans
Evidence that even primary school children can match sports with their sponsors is feeding into renewed efforts to remove alcohol promotion from broadcasts and live games.
Sport is a national passion. It unites Australian families and friends as they watch their favourite teams battle it out on the field. But while the players and their fans compete for glory, with health and fitness unabashedly on show, there is another game being played out between sponsors and spectators.
Of particular concern to health experts is the exposure that children have to thousands of messages from alcohol sponsors during both live and televised sporting events.
Loopholes in regulations that govern what can be shown on television, and when, mean that children of all ages are being exposed to alcohol-related promotions while watching sports broadcasts. Sometimes it’s a catchy 30-second commercial; often it’s in the more subtle form of alcohol-branded logos on sports uniforms or signage around a stadium.
New recruits the prime target
“There are two things alcohol brands are trying to do,” says Michael Thorn, Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, the organisation behind the Booze Free Sport campaign.
“One is to prime young people to become drinkers, because this is an industry that would die out if they couldn’t recruit new drinkers, and the second, more obvious thing is to recruit drinkers to their brand. They use sports as a Trojan horse. They’re invoking and appropriating the values, aspirations and interests people have about elite sports to induce people to their brand, and kids have no say in it.”
Studies show that the earlier children are exposed to alcohol advertising, the earlier they start drinking. If they’re already drinking, the more likely they are to drink at hazardous levels.
What’s more, Associate Professor of Behavioural Science at Monash University, Kerry O’Brien, says that the pattern of drinking at hazardous levels is likely to stay with children throughout the rest of their lives.
“Our research shows that kids who otherwise might not have even been thinking about drinking start thinking to themselves ‘is this the product for me?’ when they see alcohol advertisements.”
Daytime TV alcohol ads
It is virtually impossible to watch a live or televised sporting game without being exposed to images of alcohol. Research funded in part by VicHealth and undertaken by Monash University in 2015 found 87 per cent of all alcohol advertisements shown on TV during the daytime were aired during sports broadcasts.
O’Brien says advertising marketers have been so successful in their job that if children are shown a picture of sport, they’re more likely to associate it with an alcohol-related word – for example, beer – than any other words.
“Because of loopholes in advertising regulations kids never get a chance to think that it’s OK to not drink,” O’Brien says.
“Alcohol is such a cultural signaller, so much a part of who we are and it what means to be an Australian, that it has become normalised,” O’Brien adds.
“People should care about this because of the rate of alcohol-related violence, because of the chances of being in a car crash, and the fact that drinking is linked to mental health and depression.”
Breaking the link
Professor Sandra Jones, the Director of the Centre for Health and Social Research at the Australian Catholic University, says the link between alcohol and sport created by alcohol marketing needs to be broken.
“We’re normalising a drug that is addictive,” Jones says. “Children from a very young age learn that alcohol is something that is part of everyday life and something that everybody does, so we’re definitely creating that sense that this is an essential element of being an Australian, of being a sports fan.”
Jones says research shows that children as young as early primary school age are familiar with alcohol brands, and particularly with sponsors of their favourite sporting teams.
“They can often name their team’s sponsors and they appear to have quite positive attitudes towards those alcohol brands, and associate them with playing sport, with being a man, with being funny… with a whole range of really positive associations,” she says.
Many health professionals now advocate that alcohol advertising and promotion in sport should be banned. The Royal Australasian College of Physicians has called for government policy changes that would remove the loophole that allows alcohol advertising and promotion during live sports broadcasts as a first step, followed by the phasing out of all alcohol promotions in sport.
VicHealth Manager Alcohol and Tobacco, Emma Saleeba, says that VicHealth agrees with this stance. “We’d like to break the link that currently exists between sport and alcohol as we did with tobacco. This could be achieved through an incremental reduction in alcohol sponsorship of sports events.”
Remember when tobacco ads were banned?
Those anxious that cutting alcohol out of the sporting equation would be the end of their favourite teams or events need only look at what happened when tobacco promotion was banned: very little.
The gap created by the absence of tobacco sponsors was filled by a new set of corporate partners including car makers, banks, dairy brands and, it must be said, alcohol brands. After some initial resistance to the ban, O’Brien says after two years more than 80 per cent of people supported the policy change. The same needs to happen with alcohol, he says.
“It’s very difficult to convince people to reduce their drinking when at the same time they’re getting signals from ads on TV that drinking is OK,” he says.
“You can’t say one thing and then not back that up with policy, so the alcohol sponsorship and advertising regulations should be tightened. Ideally there should be a ban on all alcohol advertising and sponsorship in sport,” O’Brien says.
The French ban
If evidence is needed that banning alcohol advertising and sponsorship need not be the death knell for elite sports, Australia can look to France. In a country more synonymous with wine than perhaps any other, France severely tightened the laws around alcohol advertising in 1991, ruling that no advertising should be targeted at young people, no alcohol advertising would be allowed on television or in cinemas, and that no sponsorship of cultural or sports events was allowed. Just seven years later, France went on to successfully host and win the FIFA World Cup, one of the world’s biggest sporting events. The UK-based Institute of Alcohol Studies noted that this example highlighted the fact that sport did not die without alcohol sponsorship.