Reducing harm caused by alcohol


Walker's crisp ad exposes children to alcohol marketing

In the current ad campaign for Walkers Max Strong crisps, we see a man walking through town munching the crisps, which magnetically attract beer cans and bottles, ending with the tagline: “They’re new, they’re spicy, they’re beer magnets”. Featuring Gary Lineker, the brand ambassador for Walkers since 1995, the ad uses humour to position the crisps as “perfect with a pint”.

This direct association of the snack with alcohol consumption (featuring Fosters lager) marks a new direction in the promotion of Walkers, and according to their marketing director Rachel Holms, “this as an untapped opportunity in the market and (we) have created Walkers Max Strong to answer this demand for a perfect snack to accompany a pint”. This campaign provides a good example of what the British Medical Association labelled in 2009 the “excessively pro-alcohol real and virtual environments” within which young people are growing up. Through this advert, Fosters piggybacks on the humour and values associated with the Walkers brand, with children the unintended (if we are feeling generous) recipients of the message.

While alcohol marketing targeted specifically at children is prohibited by the Advertising Codes, the pervasive nature of alcohol marketing in society is such that children are widely exposed to these messages. The most recent systematic review of the academic literature on alcohol marketing and youth consumption (Jernigan et al, 2017) provides evidence of a close association between alcohol marketing and youth consumption, with clear evidence of a link between early marketing exposure and later alcohol consumption. Marketing acts as a significant influencing agent in the consumer socialization of adolescents to alcohol (Harris et al, 2015), and among adolescents, receptivity to alcohol marketing is associated with initiating binge drinking (Morgensten et al 2014). McClure et al (2016) further demonstrated how receptivity to internet alcohol marketing can lead to the initiation of binge drinking, with the potential to be associated with future problem drinking.

Advertising and promotion of alcohol in the UK are not only largely self-regulated by the drink industry but are also covered by Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Portman Group (PG) codes of conduct. These codes are in place as a reference framework for the alcohol industry to check that their alcohol brands are not marketed to those under the age of 18 years and that they are promoted in a socially responsible manner. Alcohol promotion in new media is subject to these codes that aim to avoid the promotion of drinking to a youth audience; however, social media websites have been identified as key alcohol marketing channels where alcohol brands interact with young members in novel and strategic ways.

Social media communications are dynamic and rapid, while existing regulatory frameworks are reactive—relying on public complaints and subsequent adjudications. This system, it has been argued, already struggles to keep pace with conventional advertising (Baggott, 2006: 33). This is exacerbated in an environment where messages are ephemeral and their impact period is a matter of hours and days, rather than weeks. In my presentation at an event on junk food and alcohol marketing in Edinburgh on March 14, I will discuss some contemporary marketing practices focused on youth, and demonstrate some of the ways that alcohol brands are entering young people's lives. This is a difficult to regulate space and I will discuss some of the issues for the regulation of alcohol marketing. 


Maria Piacentini

Professor of Consumer Research, Director of the Centre for Consumption Insights (CCI), Lancaster University.